Benjamin Netanyahu has invited Mahmoud Abbas to address Israel’s Knesset to share his vision of peace, but it will never happen — to the relief of both men. The two leaders, with good reason, don’t trust each other and question the other’s motives and sincerity.
It was a trap set by the Israeli prime minister, and Abbas walked right into it. Netanyahu suggested they should meet rather than “speaking past each other,” offering to go to Ramallah, seat of Abbas’s government, to present his vision of peace to the Palestinian parliament, knowing it hasn’t convened in nearly a decade and many of its members are in Israeli prisons.
A Palestinian spokesman quickly rejected the offer as a “new gimmick” and a bluff, and Abbas instead called for the international community to exert more pressure on Israel and establish the Palestinian state without the inconvenience of negotiations with Israel or Netanyahu, which he considers a waste of time. In the meantime, he said, the United Nations should “provide international protection for the Palestinian people,” who are now waging a knife intifada.
Was this invitation really an attempt to revive the comatose peace process or a PR ploy?
Some, particularly in the Israeli peace camp, say Netanyahu was really addressing Barack Obama, in essence saying, “See, I’m really trying to make peace so don’t muck it up with some speech or UN resolution after the American election.”
Netanyahu may have also intended to remind people of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem on Nov. 19, 1977, ending decades of war and opening the door to peace. Within a year, the two old enemies signed a peace treaty and all Israelis ultimately left the Sinai, even though not long before Sadat’s visit, Prime Minister Menachem Begin had vowed to retain the peninsula, even going so far as to buy a retirement home in the area. (I wonder if Netanyahu would have accused Begin of “ethnic cleansing” for ordering the removal of all Israelis from the Sinai?)
If Abbas really felt Netanyahu was bluffing, he should have called him on it. As one American politician likes to say, “What have you got to lose?” Had Abbas done so, it could have dramatically altered Israeli public opinion of the Palestinian Authority with a message of reconciliation, recognition, and respect. And had Netanyahu reneged, the world would know all his talk about peace is just that, all talk.
Abbas’s audience, if he chose to address the Knesset, would be the most powerful force in Israel, even more powerful than the right-wing rejectionists Netanyahu has stuffed into his cabinet. The Israeli public is far more supportive of peace and the two-state solution than its prime minister, but they need to be convinced there is a serious partner on the other side.
But in his recent speech at the UN, Abbas made clear that this is not the case, his words ensnaring him further, just as Netanyahu planned.
Abbas demanded that the United Kingdom apologize for the 1917 Balfour Declaration that called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and that the nation should accept its “historic, legal, political, material, and moral responsibility” for the “catastrophes, misery, and injustice this declaration created.” The establishment of the Jewish state, he said, was a “heinous” crime against “a peaceful people” who “never attacked anyone or partook in a war against anyone,” and called on the UN to “declare 2017 as the international year to end the Israeli occupation of our land and our people.”
He falsely claimed it was the Jews who rejected the 1947 Partition Plan dividing the land into two states, one Jewish, the other Palestinian. In fact, it was the Arabs who rebuffed the deal and invaded from all directions in a war to wipe out the nascent Jewish state. His statements only served to reinvigorate the resolve of Israeli hardliners.
The vitriolic words of Abbas showed his hand, proving he has no intention of speaking to the Knesset. Rather, he is focused on delegitimizing Israel and mobilizing international pressure to force it to withdraw from the West Bank and accept other conditions.
The trouble with that strategy is it won’t work and is producing a weariness with the conflict in the Arab world, Europe, and America, Abbas even complaining that a “weak” Arab world was abandoning him.
His fears seem legitimate, as encouragement for Abbas to accept Netanyahu’s invitation came from an unusual source: Saudi Arabia. An editorial in the Saudi Gazette said Abbas was too quick to reject the opportunity, which it called “reminiscent” of Begin’s invitation to Sadat.
In a similar vein, a senior Egyptian intelligence official was overheard in a telephone conversation mocking Abbas as old and stupid, according to the Middle East Eye and the Times of Israel. The Egyptian general said Abbas “isn’t smart at all. He doesn’t want to change; he doesn’t want to do anything.”
Both are signs of the spreading impatience among Arab leaders and others with what they see as Abbas’s unwillingness to make a peace deal with Israel. It helps explain the quiet but spreading rapprochement between Israel and some Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.
In 1977 two courageous men with a strong sense of history were ready to lead their nations in a new direction.
Mahmoud Abbas is no Anwar Sadat, and Benjamin Netanyahu is no Menachem Begin.
Instead their people are led by a pair of petty politicians more intent on finding excuses than opportunities.