On Tuesday, Barack Obama reportedly told Orthodox Jewish leaders that Mahmoud Abbas may be too weak to deliver a peace deal. That may well be true. The interesting question is why. Partly, it’s because Abbas lacks Yasser Arafat’s revolutionary stature in Palestinian society. Partly, it’s because of the alleged corruption in the Abbas family. Partly, it’s because Islamism is rising within Palestinian politics, as in other parts of the Arab world. And, of course, it’s because many Palestinians oppose the two-state solution, especially if it requires them to largely abandon the right of refugee return. Not much Barack Obama can do about that.
But Abbas is also weak because despite his and Salam Fayyad’s cooperation with Israel against terrorism, they’ve been unable to stop settlement growth (which even during the “freeze” year of 2010 grew faster than it had in 2008 because settlers were allowed to continue building on houses where foundations had already been laid). Abbas is weak because the Obama administration could not get the Israeli government to agree to talks based on the 1967 lines plus swaps last year. Abbas is weak because the Obama administration blocked his efforts first to condemn settlement growth at the United Nations and then to declare statehood there. And finally, Abbas is weak because he lacks democratic legitimacy: His term as president of the Palestinian Authority expired in 2009.
So why hasn’t the Palestinian Authority held new elections? Partly because Fatah fears it might not win and partly because the United States fears Fatah might not win, having been burned by Hamas’s victory in 2006. Worrying about the consequences of a Hamas victory is understandable, but it’s a little silly for an American president to complain about Abbas’s weakness when America effectively guarantees that weakness by opposing the democratic election of Palestinian leaders. Such a democratic process might produce leaders hostile to a two state solution. Or it might not. (In a truly free Palestinian election, the jailed Marwan Barghouti might well defeat both Hamas and Abbas.) If the United States doesn’t want to take the risk, fine. But for Obama to complain about Abbas’s weakness is vaguely reminiscent of that old line from Cold Mountain: “they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say, ‘Shit! Its rainin'!"