A few days before the November 6 American election, Mahmoud Abbas summoned roughly 15 Israelis, including former pro-peace politicians, ex-generals and ex-diplomats, to his presidential office in Ramallah for a chat about the future. Ophir Pines-Paz, the former Labor Knesset member—who, dismayed with the trajectory of his party, abruptly exited politics three years ago—was among those in attendance. According to Pines-Paz, the 77-year old Abbas told the group he would resign and dismantle the Palestinian Authority if there was no movement toward peace soon.
After the January 22 Israeli election, Abbas plans to visit U.S. President Barack Obama and the next Israeli premier—presumably a re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—and deliver a sharp message, Pines-Paz recounted during a visit to the United States last week: "I am not going to continue in the coming four years the same way that we did in the last four years, meaning, if there is not going to be any kind of dialogue or peace process that should end with a result, I’m going to, number one, cancel the Oslo agreement, number two, end the Palestinian Authority, number three, give Netanyahu the keys (to the West Bank), and number four, resign. That’s it, pure and simple.’’
Pines-Paz, who has retreated to academia and kept a low profile since leaving politics, was on a multi-city speaking tour on behalf of J Street, the Washington-based Jewish group advocating for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this particular appearance to a house full of J Street supporters in Woodside, California, Pines-Paz continued to paraphrase Abbas.
Abbas, after the election, will tell the Israelis: "You want to be occupiers? So you occupy? I’m not going to be your shield. I’m not going to do for you the dirty work of keeping the security of Israel from the West Bank and getting nothing in return. Enough is enough. You want to continue and build the Hamas and (its leader, Ismail Haniyeh), do that with pleasure.’’
It may be hard for anyone to take Abbas seriously. In fact, Abbas could be described as the world’s most unwilling leader. He has threatened to resign countless times. In 2008, he reportedly told former Israeli peace negotiator Yossi Beilin that if no peace deal were reached in six months he’d consider stepping down. In October 2009, Abbas is said to have told Obama he had to resign since there was no chance of advancing the peace process so long as Netanyahu was in power. This past September, Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Abbas gave the Palestine Liberation Organization 10 days to find a replacement for him.
When I asked long-time Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat about Pines-Paz’s characterization of Abbas’s comments, Erekat—who was also present in the meeting—confirmed the get together and said there was a discussion about the future. But he said Abbas did not threaten to resign. Nor did Abbas, Erekat said, frame anything as a plan.
Abbas, in the context of answering an Israeli’s question, said, according to Erekat: "If the Israelis were to move and cut the money from us and the Americans cut their aid and the Israelis will continue to refuse the two-state solution and continue the settlement activity it’s imminent the Palestinian Authority will collapse and Israel will end up being the only power’’ in the West Bank.
"It wasn’t a threat,’’ Erekat stressed. Rather, a prediction.
Whatever Abbas said—whether that he would resign and dismantle the Palestinian Authority, or simply that the authority would cease to exist without progress towards peace—it’s clear that Abbas’s days as the moderate Palestinian leader with which Israel has a shot of making at least a partial peace deal are numbered.
When an audience member pressed Pines-Paz to say if he was certain he understood Abbas’s statements correctly, he joked that Abbas "spoke English. He didn’t speak in Arabic. So I think I got it right.’’
Pines-Paz acknowledged that it doesn’t mean Abbas will follow through. But, he said, he believes the Palestinian leader because he would do the same in his shoes. "People don’t believe’’ that Abu Mazen would resign. "Okay, but people didn’t believe he was going to the come to the U.N. as well,’’ Pines-Paz said referring to the recent United Nations General Assembly vote that granted Palestine a non-member state observer status. Abbas continued to push for the vote, defying Israeli and U.S. demands that he scrap the bid.
Pines-Paz added: "You should hear Abu Mazen carefully. He almost has nothing to lose. He lost credibility. He is humiliated. Haniyeh is now more popular than he is in the Palestinian street. He’s doing the dirty job for the Israelis… so that’s the end of the game for him.’’
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