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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Book review: Abbas’s fall: from peace broker to spent force

This review of the Palestinian leader pulls no punches

Palestinian school girls wearing the traditional chequered keffiyeh headdress wave national flags and Fatah banners in front of huge portraits of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (L) and his successor, current Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas. AFP
Palestinian school girls wearing the traditional chequered keffiyeh headdress wave national flags and Fatah banners in front of huge portraits of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (L) and his successor, current Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas. AFP

Ramallah wore an unsettlingly sterile look in the summer of 2012. I had gone there to interview Nimer Hammad, one of the key political advisers to president Mahmoud Abbas, at the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

The compound, once the nucleus of Palestine’s struggle for statehood, now looked a listless memorial to a forgotten cause. Dr Hammad was full of despair. President Abbas had delivered what the Israelis expected of him – peace in the West Bank – and the Israelis were repaying his effort by ignoring his plea for an end to the occupation.

That summer, tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets of Tel Aviv to protest against rising costs; not a voice was raised against the occupation of the West Bank. Palestine, by virtue of the peace created by Abbas, had ceased to be a burning issue in ­­­

Israeli politics.

I did the rounds of two other Palestinian ministries that day, and the mood in both places was identical.

Palestinian officials felt they were rehearsing for a show they would never be permitted to put on – certainly not as long as Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister of Israel. But if they were frustrated with Netanyahu, they were terrified of their fellow Palestinians, whose rage, accumulating under the surface for more than a decade, they feared might explode at any time.

Young Palestinians increasingly regarded the leadership of the Palestinian Authority less as an advocate of their freedom and more as an abetter of their occupation. The status quo was untenable.

Five years on, president Abbas is still in power in the West Bank. Netanyahu is still the prime minister of Israel. And the occupation is still in place. But the appearance of stability, if it can be called that, is deceptive.

Gaza has moved further away from the West Bank. Palestinian nationalism is fractured between competing visions: quasi-secularist, Islamist, and, in Hamas’s case, nihilist.

The growth of multiple power centres has diminished Abbas. And the goal of national liberation is jeopardised by the absence of a unifying voice.

The Last Palestinian, by Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, is a lament for a lost opportunity. The authors expertly chart the rise and reign of Abbas – and the tantalising possibilities for peace that disappeared as quickly as they appeared.

Rumley and Tibon can seem like an odd duo: the former is a fellow at the conservative Defence of Democracies think tank in Washington DC, while the latter is the Washington correspondent of the prestigious left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz. But the authorial pairing pays off.

One gets the sense that each writer has tempered the biases of the other.

The authors’ emphasis on Abbas’s failures can convey the feeling that they are amplifying the Israeli view of recent history. (Their argument, for instance, that Abbas “has failed to prepare his people for the concessions necessary to live peaceably” with their neighbours is equally applicable to Israeli leaders.) But this is a book about Abbas, not his Israeli counterparts. And to their credit, Rumley and Tibon supply plenty of detail about the failures of Israel’s leaders.

The Abbases were among the 700,000 or so Palestinians dispossessed almost overnight by the partition plan passed at the United Nations in November 1947. Their village, Safed, where Jews and Arabs had long lived in harmony, fell to the Zionist Haganah militia the following year.

“I felt an overpowering urge to turn and cast a glance backwards, as if to cement Safed’s familiar details,” Abbas later wrote in a poignant recollection of his flight from the city. “I felt I might not see it again”.

The experience might have devoured the soul of others. But growing up in dire poverty as a refugee in Syria, Abbas did not cultivate personal hatred for Jews. Even when he joined Fatah, the organisation led by Yasser Arafat, he was not involved in its militant ventures. Abbas made himself indispensable to the group as a fundraiser and a resident expert on Israeli politics, rose in the ranks, and became,

to the extent that anyone could, the moderating influence on Arafat.

A decade after the Six-Day War in 1967 – when Israel annexed the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem – Abbas entered into negotiations with an Israeli general. Together they hammered out a plan for the establishment

of a Palestinian state

alongside Israel.

Abbas’s courageous departure from Fatah’s traditional stance invited accusations of treachery from within – and brought no recognition from Israel. This was the start of a pattern: engagement with Israel in defiance of Palestinian opinion, failure to obtain results, hostility from Palestinians, indifference from the Israelis, no recognition from the world.

Rumley and Tibon give Abbas his due in the fashioning of the Oslo Accords, which created self-governance structures for Palestinians, granted them some control over security, and brought legitimacy to Arafat.

Abbas and his Israeli counterpart, foreign minister (and future prime minister and president) Shimon Peres, put their signatures to the agreement at the White House in 1993. Yet the Nobel Committee overlooked Abbas when it announced the following year’s Peace Prize winners, restricting it to Arafat, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and, galling for Abbas, Peres.

“I’m the equivalent of Peres on the Palestinian side”, Abbas is said to have complained to the Norwegians.

The Nobel Peace Prize would have raised Abbas’s international profile and might even have furthered the cause of peace. The oversight by the Norwegians didn’t, however, deter him from seeking out partners in Israel.

Over the next two years he negotiated a settlement – “the most balanced proposal for peace” – with Israelis that satisfied all parties. Abbas even leaned on Arab-Israeli legislators to back the fragile government of Rabin, whose premiership was under threat from conservative partners aghast at his concessions to Arafat. Rabin, who in all likelihood would have approved the so-called Beilin-Abu Mazen plan, was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist.

Peres, who replaced Rabin, shelved the proposal: he didn’t want to be seen as weak. In an attempt to appear tough – to propitiate Israeli extremists – he ordered the assassination of a Hamas operative.

This was a grave miscalculation by Peres. Hamas retaliated with a fierce campaign of terror. Peres was weakened. And Israelis elected Netanyahu – a man who immediately took to destroying Abbas’s credibility with the Palestinian people by urging him to persuade Arafat to make concessions, and then withholding the rewards he promised in return.

Rumley and Tibon fault Abbas for failing to take up the peace offer put forth by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, and for rejecting “a historic peace plan” proposed by United States president Barack Obama in 2014.

This seems harsh. In 2008, Abbas was dealing with an Israeli prime minister hobbled by allegations of corruption; the plan had no prospects for success. In 2014, it was far from clear what was so “historic” about Obama’s proposal. In any event, there was no indication at the time that Netanyahu was willing to make any compromise.

When he became president in 2005, the scholars Hussein Agha and Robert Malley called Abbas the only “genuinely national Palestinian figure” after Arafat.

Today, Abbas is the last man of whom this can be said. Agha and Malley argued at the time that Abbas won the presidency “because more than any other Palestinian leader today, his political inclinations are in harmony with his people’s immediate priorities”. Today, Abbas rules without a mandate. The disappointments with Israelis have made him turn inward.

Since 2007, when Hamas took power in Gaza, his principal preoccupation has been holding on to power.

And, as Rumley and Tibon correctly point out, since 2014, he has gone “from bureaucrat to despot”.

He hasn’t strengthened institutions or mentored leaders. There is something tragic, and tragically pathetic, about Abbas in old age: a once-scrupulous man who, having allowed himself to be duped by Netanyahu, now directs his impotent rage at his own people.

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Read more:

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