Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with a group of prominent American Jews in New York Monday evening for a dialogue over a dinner of trout and saffron rice. Also on the menu were servings of hope, flattery, mutual frustration and a just soupcon of evident peace-process exhaustion and perhaps a hint of unstated despair.
Abbas, in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, seemed intent on driving home his views on peace, which Palestinians claim are frequently misrepresented by Israelis. He repeatedly condemned the recent murders of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, declared himself committed to a “two-state solution” with Israel and “the state of Palestine” living “side by side in security and peace,” and he insisted that “70% of Palestinians” share that goal.
And, in a seeming rebuke to persistent Israeli and Western skepticism, he stated several times that his goal in negotiations is a “comprehensive agreement with Israel that will end the conflict and end further claims” by the two sides against one another. Pro-Israel analysts commonly claim that the Palestinian leader has no intention of agreeing to a final end to the conflict and cannot agree to sign a deal ending all further claims against Israel.
The 30-odd Americans in attendance, mostly liberal activists, peppered him with questions about how he planned to convince Israelis of his sincerity, at times seemingly wanting to be convinced themselves. Of 13 guests who were called on to ask questions, no fewer than six asked him bluntly to use the U.N. pulpit to reach out to Israelis, to let Israelis “hear words of hope from you,” to “dispel the pessimism” plaguing the diplomatic process and “make clear that you are a partner for peace.”
Abbas’s replies to each were variations on “no”: “I don’t think the Israelis need to be convinced that two states are good for them—they want their state and we want our state.” And: “My speech will be addressed to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people at the same time, but when we talk we don’t have double language.” And, after being asked the same question a sixth time: “It’s not my job alone to dispel pessimism — we both have to work, both me and Mr. Netanyahu.”
To numerous guests chatting among themselves afterward, the most notable feature of the dinner was who wasn’t there. The Abbas dinner has become something of an annual September ritual when the Palestinian leader comes to address the General Assembly. It’s organized each year by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is named for the Slim-Fast diet food mogul who founded it and is headed by former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler. In past years guests have included heads of the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the main synagogue unions and others.
Recently published analyses teach the following lessons:
Lesson 1. The Arab uprisings are not necessarily democratic in nature, and liberal readiness to back them — morally or with arms and material aid — is at best foolhardy romanticism. We should stand back and avoid getting involved. Why undermine existing regimes when the replacement might be no better and possibly much worse?
Lesson 2. The Arab uprisings show that ruthless dictators are finished, and proves the wrongheadedness of previous administrations’ willingness to work with them rather than seek their removal. The failure of the Obama administration and the rest of the liberal West to back the brave Syrian rebels shows the liberals’ hypocrisy and unwillingness to stand up to tyranny.
Lesson 3. The uprisings show that the Arab street never cared about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What Arab citizens care about are their own lives and welfare, not the Palestinians. It is misguided and reckless to assume that granting concessions to the Palestinians will improve Arab attitudes toward America or the West. Palestinian rights are just not on the minds of ordinary Arabs.
Lesson 4. The uprisings show that peace agreements are foolish because any regime that signs an agreement with Israel could be gone tomorrow and you can’t expect the replacements to honor the agreements. Successor regimes will be under more pressure from the Arab street to turn against Israel, if only to gain popularity with the public. Not that the Arab public cares about Israel (see 3 above). Agreements with Arab governments are unreliable because Arab governments are unstable. Successor governments will be more vulnerable to popular moods and less able to defy public hostility toward Israel.
Sub-Lesson 4(a). The Palestinian Authority’s refusal to commence negotiations with no preconditions is unreasonable. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is naturally unwilling to resume talks where they broke off during the former government of Ehud Olmert and rejects the terms that Olmert had already put on the table — including a future border based on the 1967 Green Line, the Jordan Valley under Palestinian control and a divided Jerusalem. Netanyahu has a different assessment of Israeli security needs and is not bound by his predecessor’s assessments. The Israeli electorate repudiated the Olmert concessions when it chose Netanyahu as its prime minister in 2009. Elections have consequences (except U.S. elections, which should not affect undertakings by previous presidents — they’re supposed to be sacred).
Note: All of the linked articles making the above arguments are taken directly from the Daily Alert, a comprehensive digest of news and commentary chosen to discredit Palestinian moderation and maximize fears of Israeli vulnerability, prepared daily for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Your charity dollars at work.
Now I’ve Seen Everything Dept.: Among the items featured as recommended reading in the January 20 edition of the Daily Alert, the electronic news digest of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is the latest essay by Rob Malley and Hussein Agha in The New York Review of Books.
Why is this out of the ordinary? Well, the Daily Alert is a digest of key news items that demonstrate the implacability of Israel’s enemies, the blamelessness of Israel’s own actions and the weaknesses of the peace process. It’s prepared every morning by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the deeply conservative think tank headed by former diplomat Dore Gold, and is sent out by e-mail to several hundred thousand readers on behalf of the Conference of Presidents. Malley and Agha, for their part, are Middle East policy experts — Malley an American official with the International Crisis Group and Agha, a Palestinian-British academic — who write periodically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in The New York Review of Books. They’re frequently critical of the Israeli policy-making echelon, and the sentiment is extremely mutual.
You might say that Malley and Agha are from Venus and Dore Gold is from Mars. Or, put differently, Malley and Agha are from Geneva and Gold is from Jerusalem the United, Eternal and Undivided Capital of the Jewish People. Either way, a Malley-Agha essay is about the last thing you’d expect to find in the Daily Alert.
So why is this Malley-Agha essay, “Who’s Afraid of the Palestinians?,” different from all other Malley-Agha essays? In a word, because they argue here that, given the current state of play in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Washington and the Arab capitals, no peace agreement is likely in the foreseeable future. Which is, you should pardon me, pretty much the same thing Avigdor Lieberman has been saying lately. On top of that, they write at length of the current strategies of the Palestinian leadership, including hoping for U.S. pressure and looking for international recognition, each of which they dismiss as misdirected.
The passages quoted in the Daily Alert capture some of the authors’ pessimism and their dim view of Palestinian strategy. Nor surprisingly, they leave out the parts that put Israel in a bad light.
The main point of the essay is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have a real incentive to take risks right now — Israel because of the security provided by the barrier, Palestinians because of Salam Fayyad’s efforts to build a state and show a the capacity of self-governance. Palestinians overestimated America’s ability to pressure Israel. Israel’s demographic problem — the impending need to choose between a democratic state and a Jewish one — has been deferred for the foreseeable future by the disengagement from Gaza.
The one threat that could still impel Israel to seek a solution is the growing problem of international isolation, or what Israelis call delegitimization. But, they argue, Israelis are more likely to respond to European hostility with resentment and retrenchment rather than by trying to resolve the Palestinian conflict that spurs the hostility.
Here are the passages from the Malley-Agha essay that appear in the Daily Alert as bullet points:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a bombshell today in a speech at the Plaza Hotel to about 500 people gathered by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: Israel might accept a peace agreement in which parts of Jerusalem are handed over to a Palestinian state.
He said it backwards, but the message was unmistakable. Here are his words:
You all know that there are many Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that will remain in Israel regardless of any agreement that is reached.
Translation: It’s possible that an agreement (that is, something on which the parties agree) could be reached in which some Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will not remain in Israel. I couldn’t get any Israelis to comment afterward.
It didn’t come as part of the prepared speech, but as part of his answer to one of the two written questions from the audience read to him afterward by Malcolm Hoenlein. (Did they arrange it in advance so he could slip the bombshell into an afterthought? Dunno yet.)