Tel Aviv — Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week launched a no-holds-barred attack on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, disparaging him in an unprecedented six-page memo to the diplomatic community as an obstacle to peace and more extreme than his predecessor, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
This week, in the wake of Monday’s vote by the United Nations cultural arm, UNESCO, to grant the Palestinians member-state status, Lieberman stepped up the attack, going as far as to say that Israel should consider severing ties with the Palestinian Authority.
Some observers were quick to dismiss the remarks as another of Lieberman’s occasional diplomatic provocations (in August he suggested Israel support Kurdish militants against Turkey’s government), which serve his political ambition to become the leader of the Israeli right. And some Israeli leaders came to Abbas’ defense, contending that the effort to undercut him was shortsighted. (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was mum on the matter.)
But still others contend that Lieberman’s viewpoint actually reflects mainstream thinking within the Israeli government, which has concluded that Abbas is no longer a partner for peace in light of a campaign for international recognition at the UN.
Lieberman first launched his attack last Wednesday, when envoys from the U.S.-led “Quartet” of international peace process mediators were seeking to press Netanyahu and Abbas into concessions that would spur a return to talks and an abandonment of the unilateral approach.
“Avigdor Liberman is saying what many around the cabinet table think,” said Eli Shaked a former ambassador to Egypt. “Politicians ask, ‘Why should we freeze construction in Jerusalem? Why should we make any concessions, what is the reason why Abu Mazen deserves any generosity from Israel now, when he did nothing during the 10-month freeze?’”
Such a conclusion, the former ambassador argues, requires new thinking and a new policy from Israel’s government. On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s eight-member advisory cabinet met to discuss sanctions against the PA for the UNESCO vote.
“If Lieberman is right, at this moment we have to change course and think in a more creative way, and not in a conservative way,” said Shaked. “One way or another, Israel has to come up with an idea — if this is not good then what is the alternative? If President Abbas is good for nothing, what is Israel planning?”
Ever since Abbas’ coronation seven years ago as the successor to Arafat, he’s been embraced by the international community and Israelis as a “moderate” Arab leader who eschews violence in favor of negotiations — the first Palestinian peace partner that Israelis could welcome wholeheartedly.
But the new Palestinian strategy of pursuing membership in the United Nations has cast him in a new confrontational light for many Israelis. The settlers’ and their allies’ attacks on Abbas, however, preceded the UN campaign.
Danny Danon, a Likud Knesset member, said Israel should use the UNESCO vote as a pretext to annex settlements.
“President Abbas is a hypocrite” for seeking funding from the U.S. and reconciliation with Hamas, he said. “I am pushing the prime minister to take action against the PA by the fact that they went against the Oslo accords. They should pay the price.”
The Foreign Ministry memo argues that “beyond a doubt, Chairman Abbas has no interest in an agreement with Israel.” The Palestinian leader is motivated by concerns for his “historical legacy and personal welfare” and has adopted positions to deliberately stoke friction, the document says.
The document’s conclusion is unequivocal: “No agreement will ever be possible as long as Mahmoud Abbas leads the Palestinian Authority.”
The document was released two days after Lieberman said in a briefing to Israeli reporters that it would be a “blessing” for Israel if Abbas were to make good on frequent statements that he will resign soon.
The comments outraged the Palestinian Authority, which shot back that Lieberman’s views were tantamount to incitement against Abbas, and reflected the mind of a “bandit.” A protest was also submitted to the UN.
Ironically, at the same time there are rising voices within the Palestinian Authority calling for the dismantling the government out of frustration at the lack of progress in the peace process — a move considered just as much a threat to Israel, which would be held responsible for governing the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israelis and diplomats believe Abbas is crying wolf. “There would be absolute chaos if he chose to go down that road,” said a Western diplomat based in Jerusalem. “He’s an elite, not a revolutionary.”
The attacks on Abbas prompted a defense from Israeli President Shimon Peres. Israel’s security chiefs are also taking exception to the attempt to undermine Abbas, and have instead advocated finding a way back to peace talks.
A senior military officer said that he believes that Abbas wants an agreement with Israel, but has embarked on the UN gambit out of desperation over the vacuum in peace talks.
Many assert that the Foreign Ministry memo should be taken with a grain of salt because it is not the first time Lieberman has diverged from the official government line. Last year at the UN he argued that Israelis and Palestinians shouldn’t expect to reach a long-term peace deal in the near future, a contradiction from Netanyahu’s assertion that a deal could be reached within a year.
That’s to be expected from Lieberman, who is seen as trying to position himself as leader of Israel’s hard-line right for the next election — in direct competition to the Likud, observers say.
“Lieberman is looking for a political advantage, expecting elections sometime in the next year. … He’s trying to outflank Netanyahu on the right,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.
“[Netanyahu] is staying silent on this, which is an indication that while he agrees with him, there’s no benefit” to coming out and saying it.
While Lieberman calls for Israel to cut ties with the Palestinians, the prime minister is unlikely to make such a move, said Steinberg.
“Israel needs to conduct relations with the Palestinian population,” he said. “There’s still significant security cooperation with the Palestinian police, and as long as those benefits continue it would by silly to undermine them.”
The anti-Abbas attitude in Israel was bolstered in the last week by the publication of a memoir by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describing a 2008 peace plan by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to return most of the West Bank, divide Jerusalem, and allow several thousand Palestinian refugees to relocate to Israel as a “humanitarian” gesture. According to the memoir, the Palestinian president never responded.
Gershon Baskin, a peace activist with the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information, argued that by accusing the Palestinian Authority of trying to sidestep peace talks and putting it at risk, Netanyahu is making a similar argument that there’s no partner for talks, just without mentioning Abbas by name.
The talk of boycotting Abbas by Israel and the Palestinians shutting down the peace effort reflect a bilateral brinkmanship amid a vacuum of negotiations, Baskin said. “Neither is realistic, but it seems to be moving in that direction.”
The U.S. and the UNSECO vote. See story on page 30.