Since his return from Washington, where he met with President Barack Obama, Mahmoud Abbas has demonstrated on successive occasions that he is only willing to harden his position on peace with Israel. For example, on March 22, 2014, Abbas spoke before the Central Committee of the Fatah Movement. According to Nabil Abu Rodena, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority presidency, the Fatah body supported Abbas’ position of “non-recognition of Israel being a Jewish state.” The Palestinians did not release a complete text of Abbas’ Fatah speech.
At the Arab League summit in Kuwait on March 25, Abbas took this a step further. The official Arabic transcript of his speech before reveals how he has moved toward a more uncompromising diplomatic posture, opposing Israel’s stand that it be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people, just as it recognizes the Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people:
Israel has invented new conditions that it did not raise before, like recognizing it as a Jewish state. This we oppose as well as even holding a discussion on this matter.
Of course, past Israeli governments have raised this requirement for a final peace settlement previously. Moreover, Israel has not tried to exercise a veto over the agenda of future permanent status talks, even when the subjects have been uncomfortable for Israeli public opinion.
In general, Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the Kuwait summit had two main features: adherence to longstanding, familiar Palestinian positions along with an effort to maneuver between the intra-Arab disputes, since Abbas knows that he cannot reach an agreement in the negotiations with Israel without intra-Arab backing. In these disputes he tried to situate himself on the Saudi-Egyptian side of the barricade.
A graver development is that the pro-Saudi Arab press is asking whether Qatar’s tough anti-Saudi stance is backed by the United States in an effort to divide the Gulf States and fracture the Gulf Cooperation Council. It may be, then, that the Gulf States will not be inclined to help U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his attempts to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
As for Palestinian positions toward Israel, Abbas’ solemn declaration that he will never negotiate the issue of a Jewish state means he is digging in his heels as the U.S.-brokered nine-month negotiating period comes to an end in April. Moreover, Abbas linked that issue to the refugee issue as formulated in UN Resolution 194 and to “rectifying the injustice of the Nakba.” In other words, Israel would have to accept Resolution 194 and the principle that an injustice had been perpetrated against the Palestinian refugees. Abbas speaks about Palestinians living in refugee camps waiting to return to their homeland (watan in Arabic). By not insisting that they will go to their state (dawla), he is claiming that they have a right to return to Israeli territory which he regards as part of their original patrimony.
To make matters worse, Abbas repeated the canard of Israeli conspiracies against the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, making the baseless charge that Israel was seeking to divide the Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslims and Jews. This was a transparent effort to incite the Arab states to unify behind the Palestinian Authority and leave their disputes over Iran and Syria. It was a testament to the problem the Palestinians have relying on the involvement of the Arab states because of the lack of unity that presently afflicts Arab politics today.
At this point, these statements do not necessarily mean the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are at an end; Abbas also took care to praise President Obama and Kerry for their efforts. Yet by getting the Arab League to oppose Israel’s call for recognition of the rights of the Jewish people to a nation-state, Abbas has sought to obtain a wall-to-wall Arab consensus with which he can resist any pressure from Washington to change his position.
The main problem Abbas faces is that intra-Arab disputes have intensified and spread to the Gulf Cooperation Council. The members of the Arab League have to decide who they support in an atmosphere of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” The standoff pits Saudi Arabia, on one side, against Qatar, on the other. Abbas maintained in his speech that “Arab national security” requires a consensus at least on the Palestinian issue.
Moreover, Abbas took a stance that was uncongenial to Jordan by recognizing its solely bureaucratic role in “managing the Wakf’s affairs,” while stating that all of Jerusalem up to the old, pre-1967 Israeli-Jordanian lines was to become the capital of the Palestinian state; a position that Abbas entrenched in his speech in Kuwait.
Amid the intra-Arab tension, Abbas strongly praised Saudi Arabia while giving Qatar praise that was no more than lip service. He also expressed support for el-Sisi’s plan for Egypt’s rehabilitation. Thus, in “for us or against us” terms, Abbas placed himself in the Saudi-Egyptian camp. An invitation to Abbas to visit Egypt is now expected.
Even though Abbas cited “international legitimacy” as the source of authority for any peace agreement, he also praised Obama and Kerry for their efforts. He is not, then, closing the door on Kerry, while perhaps also trying to avoid being held to blame for a breakdown of the talks. Abbas also reiterated his position on the last round of prisoner releases; namely, that this has been agreed upon between Israel and the United States. Abbas hoped thereby to spark Israeli-American friction on that issue.
The tough positions Abbas took on the Palestinian issue do not indicate anything about his stance toward renewing the negotiations. His words relate to a permanent agreement and do not entail opposition to extending the talks. Blaming Israel for the talks’ failure is a regular motif in the Palestinians’ statements and is nothing new.
This week, as Kerry and Abbas meet again in Amman, it is probable that their conversations will focus on extending the Israeli-Palestinian talks and on the issue of the fourth round of prisoner releases.
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.