Does Abbas Really Want Israel to Withdraw From the West Bank?

Published in Haaretz, Feb. 18, 2016

A Palestinian journalist I happened to run into recently in some smoking corner asked me, “What makes you think we will let you leave the territories? Who will protect us?” I assume that he was at least half-joking. But as a thought experiment, maybe it’s worth exploring the other half for a moment.

We can rephrase the question this way: Why should Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sign a peace treaty with us in return for a state along the 1967 lines? The answer is, of course, so that he can liberate his people from Israeli military control and be free to rebuild their national life.

Only it’s not so simple. First of all, it would require giving up the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, for which any Palestinian politician would pay a heavy price. After swearing allegiance to this right so many times, and after immortalizing the refugee problem for three generations with the help of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, yielding on the right of return will without a doubt be regarded as capitulation and moral bankruptcy.

And what about some relief in the realm of human rights? These rights are the cornerstone of the Israeli left’s arguments against the occupation, but it isn’t certain that they are a PA priority. Although the Israeli occupation seriously undermines the Palestinians’ human rights, the Palestinian Preventive Security force isn’t exactly Amnesty International and it isn’t clear it will abuse those rights any less.

Moreover, if Abbas and his people fear a Hamas takeover – and after Gaza it’s hard to blame them – they can rely on Israel’s superior military strength for as long as we’re there. It’s certainly more comfortable for Abbas than battling Hamas on his own. They are his people, after all.

Right now the PA can compensate for this dependence on Israel by declaring that it will never stop the struggle for liberation from Zionist colonialism. But if the Palestinians are liberated from Zionist colonialism through an agreement to divide the land, the PA will have to reverse both sides of the equation; it will be losing the support of the Israeli bayonets while also looking as if it succumbed to them.

But above all, Abbas has surely looked around at what’s happening throughout the region and has noticed that Arab nation-states have been collapsing all around him. The assumption that a Palestinian national state will be an island of stability in the heart of this chaos is not obvious, to say the least. Young, tiny, with institutions that have not been groomed for nation-building and with a shaky economy that’s dependent on others, it would not be a particularly safe bet, especially when all that separates it from the Islamic State caliphates is Jordan, which has absorbed Syrian refugees in numbers that are almost equal to a quarter of its own population.

Last, but not least, a peace agreement would give Israel a gift the PA won’t be too happy to give. It would extract Israel from its biggest problem, the occupation, halt its increasing international isolation, and put an end to the internal debate that’s been eating away at the foundations of the Israeli consensus.

Given all this, why should Abbas exchange victimhood for an uncertain future that is liable to exact such a high price?

Could it be that all this has occurred to him? If so, perhaps we should start thinking of how to try and end the occupation without his help.

Or perhaps it was just a silly joke by a Palestinian journalist in a smoking area. We put out our cigarettes and went back inside to listen to the same old arguments – who is right, who’s to blame, who violated what, who built where, and who is lying.


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