Photo: AP
Mahmoud Abbas
Photo: AP
Ron Ben-Yishai

What Abbas did and didn't tell the New York Times

Palestinian president vocal on his own flexibility, but mum on IDF presence in Palestine and why he won't recognize the Jewish state

One does not need to downplay the flexibility that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas displayed in an interview to the New York Times published Monday.


Nevertheless, it is entirely clear that the conciliatory tone adopted by Abbas is part of a process of public diplomacy designed to give the Palestinians an advantage beyond the blame game that is being played alongside the peace process with Israel, one which is exacerbated in light of the looming framework agreement to be presented by US Secretary of State John Kerry.


Both Israel and the Palestinians want to ensure that if the current negotiations implode, or Kerry's proposal is rejected, that the blame will fall on the other side.


This is the primary issue occupying both the Palestinian leadership and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his interview to the Times, Abbas was quick to take advantage of the ongoing war of words between Kerry and Israeli politicians in an effort to position himself as the good guy.


He is trying – and even skillfully succeeding – to appear flexible and even willing to go hand in hand with the secretary of state in order to advance peace, but in reality, when one takes a closer look at the basis for this recent pliancy, there is actually very little that is new.


Even so, one cannot disregard this small flexibility by the Palestinian Authority head, which is expressed in a variety of areas. One of which is his willingness to agree to a NATO presence across the Palestinian-controlled West Bank for an unrestricted period. It's fair to say that this NATO force will include Americans, and can therefore be seen as an effort to increase Israeli security in the face of terrorism.


American and European troops have proven in the past, in Lebanon as well, that they do not turn a blind eye in the face of terrorist networks or violations of security agreements that go against their own interests. The question is whether these soldiers are capable of providing the same high level of military intelligence and have the same operational freedom that today allows the IDF to foil terrorist plots before they have even begun to crystallize.


A further limitation is that a NATO force would make it harder for the IDF to operate. This was the case in Lebanon: Norwegian and Irish soldiers deployed there as part of UNIFIL transformed their countries into states hostile to Israel due to the terror attacks being carried out under their noses – and the Israeli reaction they elicited.


Neutralizing the Jihadists

Another indication of Abbas' flexibility is his willingness to accept an Israeli military presence in the West Bank for five years rather than three. This flexibility is not in the fact that he is ready to "suffer" an Israeli presence on his territory for longer, but Abbas is deliberately quiet on this matter: He would not tell New York Times reporter Jodi Rudoren whether when he had agreed to "Israeli military presence", he meant across the whole of the West Bank – including the Jordan Valley – or just two or three warning stations manned by Israeli military personnel.


Israel is opposed to a fixed timeframe for an IDF withdrawal from the Palestinian areas of the West Bank – neither three nor five years - wanting to commit to it only when the regional conditions are right. One example of such conditions is if it becomes clear that the Jabhat al-Nusra organization, which is linked to al-Qaeda and other Jihadist groups, is not about to seize power in Jordan nor is it operating from Jordanian territory. Only a careful inspection of the situation on the ground, and once it is certain that there is no danger from the eastern border, will Israel authorize the withdrawal of its troops from the Jordan Valley and perhaps even other areas of the West Bank.


Abbas hinted in the interview that he is ready to accept that the conditions for the further withdrawal of Israeli troops will be determined by an American-Jordanian "assessment team." He said Israel would not be allowed to dictate when it could withdraw its army.


In any case, Abbas' consent to an IDF gradual withdrawal over the course of five years would not be considered a concession, seeing as a withdrawal would be carried out while settlements that are not included in the blocs would be destroyed. That is to say that Abbas is proposing that Israeli presence – the location of which he wisely refrains from discussing – will gradually diminish.


Nevertheless, it is worth noting the significance of the words he does say: Abbas agrees that taking down Israeli settlements and reducing Israeli military presence are done within the period of five years rather than over the course of three years.


The refusal to recognize the Jewish nation state

Another new idea implied in the interview with Abbas is that the Palestinians will agree to extend negotiations with Israel beyond April 2014, if the framework agreement proposed by Kerry does not go against their viewpoints.


Though Abbas has suggested a willingness to do so in the past, he is saying it outright now.


Still, he demands that Israel announce that during the negotiation extension period, there will be a freeze on settlement construction in areas that are not included in the blocs, in return for the Palestinians not petitioning the International Criminal Court or applying for any of the UN's 60 commissions.


Alongside exhibiting flexibility when it comes to the issue of security, as emphasized by Abbas in an effort to sway American public opinion, he does not conceal his adamant refusal to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. He cites various sources in his attempt to prove that this demand was never required, but does not during the entire interview explain the nature of his refusal. This issue is vague though, it is clear that by recognizing Israel as the Jewish State, Abbas essentially concedes the right of return, which he is not prepared to do.


In conclusion, it would be likely to estimate that the PA chairman's move is part of the "blame game," and its timing, from a Palestinian point of view, is ideal. Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel, Yuval Steinitz, and even Netanyahu have laid the groundwork. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that Abbas is demonstrating flexibility on the issue of security, outspoken about his intention to prevent a third intifada to the extent of his ability.


פרסום ראשון: 02.03.14, 20:00
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