For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, it’s certainly been a “season of goodwill.”
Just ahead of the New Year, he gave the ultimate gift to Israel’s prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu has been, like him, losing grip of his constituency. But nobody thought that Abbas would come racing to his aid.
Netanyahu has a campaign to wage, and for the first time since he came in to office since 2009, it looks like he has a real challenge on his hands from the left.
Peace was hardly on the election agenda last time around. (Remember the social protest movement?) But Labor, running with a small centrist party, has not only got people talking about it again, but has actually been leading in the polls, suggesting that the Netanyahu era could be over come the March 17 ballot.
But then came along Abbas, with his latest bout of strong-arm Oslo Accord-violating unilateral tactics. Last week he tried to use the UN Security Council to force Israel to comply with his statehood wishes, and when that failed, he chased after a dream of hauling Israelis up in the Hague amid multi-lingual cries of “war criminal.” In other words, he applied for Palestinian membership to the International Criminal Court with the hope of using it as a stick with which to beat Israel.
In an election that Netanyahu is choreographing as a battle of right versus left, nothing plays into his hands like this. Yes, people could see this as a symptom of Netanyahu’s failure to prevent it, but this isn’t how Israelis think. Instead, Abbas’ move cranks up the volume of the “no partner for peace” chorus.
How, Israelis ask, can the Palestinian Authority be considered a partner for peace when it seems uninterested in talks and instead wants to escalate the conflict in the international arena? Especially when this comes after a season of PA incitement based on conspiracy theories of Israeli plans to harm the al-Aqsa Mosque and insensitively positive gestures towards terrorists. This ICC move has Israelis who were trying to be optimistic shifting towards those who cry that there is “no partner.”
Sure enough, immediately after this, a poll suddenly put Likud in the lead, three seats ahead of Labor. With classic Israeli insularity, the website that commissioned the poll, Walla!, suggested the poll flip-flop was the result of Likud’s party primary (which Bibi won). But the impact of the aggressive unilateral Palestinian moves is a far more serious explanation.
Which way things will go from here is anyone’s guess, but the significance of Abbas’ gift to Netanyahu shouldn’t be underestimated. Whatever Netanyahu would actually do on the Palestinian issue if reelected, he’s choosing to play this election as right-versus-left. In this setting, the “no partner” ethos helps the right enormously — though for strategic reasons Likud can’t energetically promote it in campaigning. Now there’s no need. Abbas is promoting it.
Of course, Abbas’ motivation in all of this is not really to help Bibi. Rather, he wants to flex his muscles domestically. He wants to assert his relevance and stop his rivals in Hamas from stealing the show as the only ones to stand up against Israel. He is desperate and frustrated.
Yet his latest actions are badly thought through. Putting aside what is good for the region, it’s hard to see how they are good for him. Adopting the mindset of a Palestinian Machiavellian, for the two years since ICC membership became a possibility, Abbas has been holding a joker in his hand — a one-time bargaining chip to hold over Israel’s head and make a demand. Instead, he threw it away to grab newspaper headlines during the New Year silly season when publicity is cheap. And the domestic glory this earned him won’t do much for him — Palestinians will quickly become frustrated when it dawns on them that they are unlikely to see any significant anti-Israel action at the Hague for years. In the short-term, which is what matters for Abbas’ political career, it is likely to come to be viewed as a hollow victory.
The most absurd part of all of this is that Abbas has not just helped Netanyahu, but turned himself into the punching bag that Netanyahu can strike to maximize the political capital. Past experience shows that Netanyahu vents his anger against Abbas’ Palestinian Authority by announcing settlement building and/or hitting it in the pocket. Netanyahu, to his credit, resisted a chance to endear himself to the right by announcing a settlement plan, but he did decide to freeze around $130 million of tax money that Israel collects on the PA’s behalf, and which was due for transfer to Ramallah at the end of December.
This was ill advised. In halting routine cooperation when bilateral relations get bad, it sets an awful precedent to the Palestinians — after all, the last thing Israel wants is for Ramallah to deal with the next diplomatic spat by stopping the security coordination that saves Israeli lives. Also, a cash-strapped PA is a weakened PA — and Israel needs the PA to keep order in the West Bank. Nevertheless, the opportunity for Netanyahu to cast himself as a strong leader who won’t take this lying down and who will hit the PA where it hurts was too good an opportunity to miss during this election season. He is playing the hand that Abbas dealt him — and could well come out smiling.
If he does, one wonders whether the many international observers who can’t hide their desperation to see the back of him will exercise intellectual honesty. Israel is constantly held responsible, as a result of its policies and its actions on the ground, for weakening the Palestinian peace camp. Will they similarly point a finger at Abbas should the doves fail in the election and Netanyahu triumph, or is it only Israel that is accountable for the political choices of the other side? n
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.