Abbas Comes to Washington

Thursday's Obama-Abbas White House summit presented the United States with a quandary: what to do with a potential peace partner whose only asset is that he's breathing.

Mahmoud Abbas’ White House drop-by looked quite different from that of Bibi Netanyahu the week before last. No senators or representatives were shoving each other to stand next to him and smile while the cameras rolled; no rubber-chicken dinners where thousands of supporters fight to outdo each other in their praise for his strength, wisdom, and good looks. The dude would have been lucky to find someone willing to pick up the check for a falafel and Coke in the Members’ cafeteria.

The Bush administration left Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations in the same state it left Iraq, Afghanistan, the U.S. Constitution, and the GOP; that is, with a prayer, but not much else.

Abbas came to Washington a wounded man many times over. He could not prevent the January 2006 victory of Hamas in democratic elections—elections the U.S. sought to undermine on his behalf. He could not stop the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 and, indeed, was barely able to prevent a Palestinian civil war; could not stop Israel’s expansion of settlements on the West Bank; could not halt Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in July 2006 or of Gaza late last year; and could not, most crucially of all, convince Palestinians that anything substantial is likely to improve anytime soon.

Just about all Abbas and Fatah have managed to do during the past eight years is survive, which given the neighborhood is no mean feat. He has done this by providing a conduit for funds from the European Union and parts of the Arab world to be distributed to the various sectors of Palestinian society that have the power and influence to demand it. He has not done it by using the money to invest in the long-term infrastructure of a future Palestinian state, which, truth be told, makes a kind of sense, given the Israeli penchant for blowing up such structures when they believe it suits their strategic purposes, and often when it doesn’t.

Abbas’ strengths and weaknesses are one and the same. While no one—not even its metaphorical mother—loves Fatah, many people hate and fear Hamas. Abbas’ primary power is that even though he can’t deliver the Palestinians to the Israelis or the Israelis to the Palestinians, should he die, or give up, he would leave the two of them to each other. That’s another formula for a war without end, and indeed, without reason, and nobody wants it.

The Bush administration left the state of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations in pretty much the same state it left Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans, the U.S. Constitution, and the Republican Party; that is, with a prayer, perhaps, but not much else. And yet the region has become more, not less, important for its malign neglect.

As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley argue in the current New York Review of Books: “Establishing a [Palestinian] state has become a matter of utmost priority for Europeans, who see it as crucial to stabilizing the region and curbing the growth of extremism; for Americans, who hail it as a centerpiece in efforts to contain Iran as well as radical Islamists and to forge a coalition between so-called moderate Arab states and Israel; and even for a large number of Israelis, who have come to believe it is the sole effective answer to the threat to Israel’s existence posed by Arab demographics.”

The problem is that nobody is willing to take any steps necessary to put the Palestinians and Israelis on track to giving either side any confidence in the other. Obama has moved quickly to demonstrate to the Arab world that he plans to put U.S. policy in the region on a radically different path than that pursued by the Bush administration. He gave his first interview as president to an Arab television network. He invited Jordan’s King Abdullah to visit the White House before anyone else. He is going to Egypt in early June without the (usually) requisite stopover in Israel. And when Netanyahu came a-courting without any concessions on settlement building or jump-starting negotiations, Obama refused to paper over their differences and pretend that everything between the two governments was kosher.

Instead, standing next to the Israeli prime minister, he talked tough: “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” Hillary Clinton, considered Israel’s best ally in the administration, sang from the same prayer book the following day: “We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth—any kind of settlement activity. That is what the president has called for.”

But Netanyahu went home and proceeded to act as if nothing had happened. He declared that Jerusalem would never again be divided and that “[East] Jerusalem is not a settlement and we'll continue to build there.” His minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, declared that settlement expansion would continue and admonished the Obama team that they didn’t really understand the Middle East.”

The success of Obama’s meeting with Abbas was entirely up to Obama. Abbas could talk tough about fighting terrorism and building hope and the like, but he couldn’t be expected to accomplish anything at all without a signal both from America and Israel that we are not returning to the bad old days of Bush-era blank checks for the Israelis to continue to expand settlements, expropriate territories, increase checkpoints, and generally make life unlivable for Palestinians. Given something by the president—a clear and unambiguous agreement that Israel will begin uprooting the settlements it promised not to build in the first place, and start to dismantle a significant number of the checkpoints that exist purely for harassment purposes—Abbas could return home to the West Bank with an argument that Fatah can deliver what Hamas cannot: a normal and perhaps one day prosperous life in a modern Palestinian state.

Interestingly, according to a recent Zogby poll, “71 percent of Obama backers believe that the United States should ‘get tough with Israel’ to stop the expansion of settlements, compared to just 26 percent of those who supported Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Also, 80 percent of likely Obama voters were in total agreement with the phrase, ‘It’s time for the United States to get tough with Israel,’ while just 16 percent of McCain supporters agreed.”

For the sake of everyone in the region, particularly the Israelis, it’s long past time the president decided to dance with the folks that brung him.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals and a columnist on Jewish issues for Moment magazine.