Much has already been said of Mahmoud Abbas’s vilely ahistorical and anti-Semitic speech to the P.L.O.’s Central Council on Sunday. There is no need to go through a blow by blow of the Palestinian president’s repugnant claims that European Jews marched to the ovens in order to avoid emigrating to Palestine, his ludicrous charge that Israel has nothing to do with Judaism, or his nescient reading of history in which Zionist leaders conspired with Arab potentates to make their countries Judenrein in order to boost Israel’s Jewish population. Abbas’s screed deserves unqualified condemnation, and it only adds to his schizophrenic legacy.
Abbas has been a disappointing political partner for Israel, to say the least. This is not to say that Israel has made things easy for him, or that Israeli leaders have all been champing at the bit to strike a deal and have been stymied by an unwilling Abbas. But Abbas has not exactly been a paragon of compromise and empathy, and he has at varying times used political weakness, intransigence, and risk aversion to avoid making decisions. This does not make Abbas a terrorist or someone who is committed to Israel’s destruction, but neither does it make him Nelson Mandela. That Abbas was for decades the most reasonable Palestinian interlocutor cannot mask the ugly racism that he is prone to spewing. There is an oft-repeated cliché that Israel will realize just what an opportunity it missed with Abbas once he is gone, and I think that will prove to be true in one important way, but it is not in the realm of politics and diplomacy. On that front, Abbas has been a passive and stationary interlocutor who is scared of his own shadow, and not only has he done nothing to advance the two-state solution from the Palestinian side, he has done things that make ordinary Israelis even more wary of Palestinian intentions, with Exhibit A being Sunday’s unhinged tirade.
Where the Israelis will indeed miss Abbas once his time on the world stage ends is in the security sphere, where he has been anything but disappointing. During Abbas’s tenure, the Palestinian Authority Security Forces have become more professional, more effective, and coordinate with Israel in a nearly seamless manner. Despite the massive unpopularity that security coordination with Israel engenders among Palestinians and the political pressure that Abbas has felt to end it, he has stood firm and ensured that it continues. Smart money is on Abbas staying the course and ignoring the PLO Central Council’s recommendation this week to cease security cooperation, since the final decision is left to his discretion and he has ignored such recommendations before. In some ways, the same factors that lead Abbas to being a less than ideal political partner for Israel make him an ideal security partner, inasmuch as he is afraid to make a hard decision that will result in blowing up the status quo. Ending security coordination would have disastrous consequences for Israel, but it would be dangerous for Abbas as well, since the combination of Israeli intelligence and PA operations is what keeps Hamas at bay in the West Bank and Abbas in power. That Abbas has his own selfish reasons for partnering with Israel on security does not detract from the fact that he has been great for Israel on the security front, and that whomever replaces him is far less likely to be as cooperative.
Abbas has also been a consistent and open advocate of a non-violent approach, including during the Second Intifada when the overwhelming tide of Palestinian opinion was going in the opposite direction. Even in the midst of his rant this past weekend, he stuck to this line, and it is likely only his unambiguous views on this topic that are keeping Fatah’s Tanzim militias from training their guns on Israel. There is no denying his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, his Holocaust denial, and his unwillingness to grant the basic respect to Jewish nationalism that he desires for its Palestinian counterpart, all of which must be denounced with no “but” appended to the end of that denunciation. There is also no denying that Abbas is a non-violent Palestinian leader, and that he deserves commendation for that.
There is an irony in how Israel relates to Abbas despite his many legitimate flaws. Israeli politicians on the right never miss an opportunity to bash him, ludicrously portraying him as no better than Yasser Arafat and labeling him a diplomatic terrorist in an effort to purposely conflate him with actual terrorist groups like Hamas. But Abbas is actually their dream Palestinian leader. He takes no political risks that would create pressure for Israel to reciprocate, does nothing to upend the security relationship that is so critical to preventing mass organized terrorism in Israel’s streets, and says enough odious things about Jews and Zionism to make him an easy political tackling dummy. In short, he makes it easy for the right to advance its settlement agenda and flirtation with annexation with no concurrent cost, and Israeli nationalist politicians still get to beat up on a Palestinian leader they can portray as not being truly interested in peace. If you are a Likud or Jewish Home leader, Abbas is the best of all worlds.
Of course, it should not escape notice that Abbas’s twin when it comes to policy schizophrenia is Prime Minister Netanyahu. Like Abbas, Netanyahu presents one set of arguments designed for public consumption while quietly doing something different out of the spotlight. In Netanyahu’s case, he takes a publicly hawkish position on settling the West Bank and casts aspersions on the notion that Israel can ever be secure if it allows for a Palestinian state, yet he is distrusted by the settler right for making hollow promises, double counting new settlement units when announcing new building, and making sure that annexation proposals go nowhere. Like Abbas, Netanyahu seems to be paralyzed by political cowardice, not wanting to take any big steps in either direction and preferring to let the status quo reign. And also like Abbas, Netanyahu has been unwilling to exercise his nuclear option; in Abbas’s case it is ending security cooperation and dissolving the PA, in Netanyahu’s it is renouncing the two-state solution and annexing Area C or the entire West Bank. There is something poetic in the fact that both men’s political tenures look like they are approaching their conclusions given how much they have mirrored each other in their policy preferences.
The uncomfortable truth is that Israel is not going to get everything it wants out of a Palestinian political leader, and it will be left waiting forever if it is holding out for a champion of Zionism. Abbas has been the best one could hope for on some fronts while being a disappointment on others. This is what makes the aging Palestinian leader a uniquely frustrating figure: the flashes he has shown in one direction giving a glimpse of how he could have been a unique partner for peace with the right Israeli counterpart, and the flashes he has shown in the other making plain the ugliness that he has never quite overcome.