What’s behind Abbas’ new tone?
Mahmoud Abbas delivered a speech on Jan. 4, on the anniversary of the founding of Fatah, that may have marked a turning point in the relations between the Palestinian Authority president and the State of Israel. Using extremist rhetoric that he has not adopted before, Abbas spoke about the need of the Palestinians “to renew an oath to the heroic martyrs and to walk in their path.”
In his list of Palestinian “martyrs” are not only recent leaders of Hamas, like Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and of the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad, like Fathi Shkaki, but also figures from the 1930s, like Izzedine al-Qassam, and especially the notorious Jerusalem mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who openly collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
What happened to Mahmoud Abbas? Hasn’t he been regarded by Israeli leaders for the last twenty years as a moderate who was interested in reaching a peace agreement? What is important is not the vapid debate over whether Abbas can still be regarded as a partner for peacemaking, but rather understanding the hard fact that conditions have changed influencing the declared intentions of leaders.
What is essential to internalize is that the political environment in 2013 no longer resembles what the Middle East looked like when Israel began talking to the Palestinians in 1993.
There were three very specific geostrategic conditions that prevailed when the political process of the last two decades was originally launched in 1991. These are now undergoing dramatic changes.
First, the Soviet Union was collapsing leaving the U.S. the sole superpower dominating the Middle East. With the U.S. armed forces deployed across the region after the American victory in the first Gulf War, the supremacy of American power was not theoretical but very real.
Second, with the defeat of Saddam Hussein, the most powerful member of what had been known as the “Rejectionist Front” was no longer a significant factor in the Middle Eastern balance of power. The pro-American Arab pragmatists were the predominant regional force.
And third, Iran, which had not yet recovered from its eight-year long war against Iraq in the previous decade, was not in any position to exploit the collapse of the 40-division strong Iraqi Army and assert itself as the new hegemonic power.
These three conditions set the stage for the convening of the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and later for the signing of the Oslo Agreements in 1993.
Yet, in 2013, that unique international constellation plainly no longer exists. The oil-rich Arab states, especially in the Persian Gulf, were concerned that the American withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, marked a new period in which the U.S. would have far less to do militarily with the region and could no longer be depended upon to assure their security.
Qatar effectively jumped from the ship of American protection and made up with Tehran already in 2007, when the Bush administration published its National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. This move was interpreted as meaning that Washington was not going to dedicate military resources to resolve the problem of the Iranian march to nuclear weapons.
Moreover, with the uprisings in the Arab world since 2011, a new rejectionist front has come to power through Islamist parties that are now ruling from Tunisia to Egypt. Hamas, which already ousted the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip in 2007, serves as a Palestinian affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and hence has a built-in advantage over Abbas, given the new regional map that was emerging.
Abbas, who in the past looked to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as his key ally, now had to contend with a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, which worked in favor of his Islamist rival, Hamas. In Middle Eastern capitals, it became widely believed that this shift came about with Washington’s approval. This was a huge overstatement, but nonetheless it was a shared perception across the region.
Finally, despite the losses it faces in Syria (including Lebanon), Iran has been demonstrating an enhanced ability to project its influence with weapons, training, and in some cases, special forces, by inserting itself into multiple Middle Eastern conflicts, from Iraq to Yemen and from Sudan to the Gaza Strip. Its activism is likely to only increase, should it cross the nuclear threshold.
Israel does not have to reach the conclusion that it has no diplomatic options with the Palestinians and that an impasse is inevitable. But to proceed with any initiative in the future it needs to make several important adjustments in its approach. First, the next Israeli government must accept that given what is going on in the Middle East, it is completely unrealistic to propose negotiations to reach a full-blown final status agreement with the Palestinians.
Second, given the regional dangers that are on the horizon, any political arrangement in the future must have a much stronger security component than what was proposed in the past. It is unfortunate that in the internal political debate in Israel, politicians often take out of the file cabinet old diplomatic ideas that did not work, without reconsidering whether they are still applicable, if they ever were. More than ever, Israel needs to preserve the ability to defend itself, by itself, no matter how the declared intentions of its neighbors change.