Since his bid for statehood ended at the UN last September, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has become strictly an enforcer of the occupation.
If Mahmoud Abbas had resigned as president of the Palestinian Authority last September, after the U.S. did Israel’s work and blocked the Palestinians’ UN bid for statehood, he would have accomplished something important. He would have inspired the Palestinians (like he did in his UN speech), left them with an example of integrity and shamed the West for allowing Israel to get away with the abomination it perpetrates in the West Bank and Gaza. If the PA had dissolved itself after the encounter at the UN, Israel would have suddenly had 2.5 million West Bankers on its hands with no Palestinian troops to keep them in line and no Palestinian bureaucracy to keep the economy from imploding. Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have threatened to quit several times, and the threat of dismantling the PA and handing the job back to Israel has been raised continually, but never fulfilled. Now there are new threats, new plans to go back to the UN this September and seek recognition of Palestine not from the Security Council, where the U.S. can always veto it, but from the General Assembly, where the Palestinians can’t get anything binding but can get a large majority of votes for a symbolic victory. Unfortunately, it’s too late, and my guess is that Abbas, Fayyad and the others know it. When they decided to swallow the U.S./Israeli refusal to recognize the Palestinians’ right to independence, they lost all respect from anybody. They’re no longer advancing the Palestinian cause, they’re advancing the Israeli occupation – that’s their image now not only among Palestinians, but among everyone. A second bid for UN recognition would be a supreme example of history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
I write this as somebody who, until this year, saw Abbas and Fayyad as the long-awaited answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the Palestinian leadership Israel always claimed to be dreaming of – one that demonstrably turned away from terror and thereby proved the sincerity of its peaceful intentions. Abbas has done this for eight years. His troops have been working with, or shall we say under, the IDF and Shin Bet, they’ve arrested thousands of Hamasniks (and tortured many of them), they’ve physically prevented mass “people power” demonstrations against the IDF, the wall and the settlements. A prime example of the PA’s diligence came during Operation Cast Lead, when the West Bank was the only place in the world where Muslims weren’t protesting.
For all his strength within Fatah, Abbas owed his rise to power to George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, who picked him to be the moderate alternative to Arafat while the latter was living out his days in the Muqata. Abbas won the Bush administration’s patronage because he spoke out from the beginning against the extreme violence of the second intifada and Arafat’s orchestration of it. Even Moshe “Bugi” Ya’alon, the right-wing Likudnik who was then IDF chief of staff, credited Abbas as a consistent force for peace. What more could Israel want? As for Fayyad, he, too, was a favorite of the Bush administration, he’d refused to serve in a national unity government with Hamas – he’s a University of Texas-trained economist who spent his career at the U.S. Federal Reserve, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, for God’s sake. He’s a Western-oriented Palestinian technocrat. But he, like Abbas, is cynically branded a rejectionist by Israel, and Israel imposes its will on the U.S., which imposes its will on Europe, so in the absence of an Israeli partner for the two-state solution that Abbas and Fayyad seek, the only job available to them is that of occupation enforcer. And at some point after last September, they decided to accept it.
I don’t know why they don’t quit and close down the store, whether it’s that they gave up on Palestinian independence, or they just got too used to the power and perks, or they’re afraid Palestinian society will suffer too much if the PA isn’t there to provide them jobs and a funnel for foreign aid, or all of the above. But objectively, Abbas, Fayyad and the PA have become Israel’s collaborators in the occupation, and no one by now can fail to see it. Israel has “turned” them. But then Israel has turned America into its collaborator, and Europe into its tacit collaborator, so turning the PA wasn’t such a big chore.
No one should feel sorry for Abbas, Fayyad and their loyalists; there’s too much abuse of power, brutality, corruption and self-seeking in the PA for them to warrant sympathy. And as Noam Sheizaf wrote, there could be worse to come: If the PA doesn’t finally collapse, it will likely “deteriorate to direct and constant oppression of its own people.” Makes sense; they’ve crossed a line, there’s no way back, so they better keep on going.
This is embarrassing to watch. Not so for Israel’s leaders and their supporters, of course; for them it’s very satisfying. They think they’ve made the enemy’s leaders surrender. But Abbas, Fayyad and the PA are not the Palestinians’ leaders; they never were, except for maybe last September when Abbas gave his UN speech. I don’t know what lesson the Israeli leadership thinks it’s taught the Palestinians by its treatment of their putative president and prime minister, but I think I can guess what lesson the Palestinians are learning: Playing ball with Israel will not get them independence, just humiliation.
Actually, though, the Palestinians have evidently known this for awhile. It’s the rest of the world that’s starting now to understand the game.