Bridge over troubled waters - Dan Ephron - 29 April 2011

Source :

We’re somewhere over the Mediterranean, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is trying to get inside the head of Barack Obama.

“We knew him before he became president,” he’s saying, struggling to understand what happened to the man who had seemed more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than any of his predecessors. “We knew him and he was very receptive.” Around us, Abbas’s closest aides are shuffling papers or typing on laptops, while his bodyguards lounge on long corduroy couches. Saeb Erekat, the ubiquitous adviser, is writing talking points for Abbas’s meeting the next day with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. A man with a sidearm is shovelling pumpkin seeds into his mouth. In a space the size of two living rooms, most of the 20-odd passengers are puffing on cigarettes, and so is Abbas. At 76, he smokes more than two packs a day.
Abbas is about as affable as politicians come — even hawkish Israelis like Ariel Sharon have said so. But occasionally, he can deliver a shot of scathing criticism, usually followed by a grandfatherly smile. A week earlier, he told me bluntly that Obama had led him on, and then let him down by failing to keep pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank last year. “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas explained. “I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.” Abbas also criticised the mediation efforts of Obama’s special envoy, George Mitchell, who has shuttled between Israelis and Palestinians for more than two years. “Every visit by Mitchell, we talked to him and gave him some ideas. At the end we discovered that he didn’t convey any of these ideas to the Israelis. What does it mean?”
Now, on the flight from Tunis to Paris, I wanted to know how long Abbas could wait. The next 18 months are probably dead time in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy as Obama focuses on his reelection campaign. No candidate for president wants to risk alienating Israel’s supporters by pressing the peace question. But a second-term president can be bolder. Bill Clinton, after his reelection in 1996, managed to get an Israeli agreement for a partial West Bank withdrawal. Netanyahu remembers it well: he was prime minister at the time. But Abbas, who has worked every angle for Palestinian statehood for 50 years, the last six as president, says he’s nearly out of time. “I cannot wait. Somebody will wait instead of me,” he tells me. “And I will not stay more.”
As the Middle East undergoes profound transformation, Americans can count on one thing in the region remaining the same: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to be an irritant for Arabs and a source of resentment against the United States. Abbas offered the best hope for peace between the two sides when he took over for Yasir Arafat in 2004. Moderate in his approach to Israel and unequivocally against violence, he was the counterpoint to Arafat’s wiliness and eccentricity.
The optimism didn’t last long. In short order Abbas lost his Parliament to the Islamists of Hamas and then lost Gaza to the same uncompromising group. By the time he and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert drew close to agreement in 2008, corruption charges made the Israeli leader a lame duck. Then Israelis elected Netanyahu.
If Abbas leaves the stage without a deal, it would add another layer of uncertainty to the regional turbulence. Among political figures in the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas is the most popular, followed by the leader of Hamas. Even if Abbas’s Fatah party can retain power, his successor would lack Abbas’s founding-generation stature. He would likely be less able to push through the required compromises for peace with Israel.
While these issues swirl, Abbas last week let Newsweek into his personal space. For five days, I travelled with him from Jordan to Tunisia to France as he rallied support for a UN resolution this September that would confer statehood on the Palestinians — a conscious replication of the process that gave birth to Israel more than 60 years ago. On the plane and before and after the meetings, I had almost unfettered access to Abbas and his closest advisers.
The team travels on an Airbus A318 borrowed from the United Arab Emirates (the PLO owns just a tiny jet). When fitted for commercial flights, it holds 132 passengers, but in the current configuration, it has all the comforts of a private plane: open spaces, wood-topped coffee tables, and leather bucket seats. Abbas’s travel routine includes a few moments of prayer in his seat during takeoff and then about 15 minutes of reading from a copy of the Holy Quran. Through much of the flight, stewardesses are wheeling out Middle East staples like couscous and kebabs but also shrimp and calamari and mussels, which Abbas seems to particularly like.
On the evening of February 17, Abbas got a phone call to his office in Ramallah. President Obama was on the line with a request. In the preceding weeks, Arab protesters in the region had toppled two longtime autocrats, including one of America’s closest Arab friends, Hosni Mubarak. Demonstrations raged in Libya and Yemen, and would soon spread to Syria. In Washington, officials worried that the protesters would eventually focus on America’s relationship with some of these dictators and on its support for Israel. Obama’s cautious steps seemed to be preventing the dreaded scenes of protesters burning American flags. But a UN Security Council resolution initiated by Palestinians and scheduled to be debated the next day threatened to remind Arabs of the very thing they hate most about America.
The resolution demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory,” a position Obama long supported.
So for 55 minutes on the phone, Obama first reasoned with and then pressured Abbas to withdraw the resolution. “He said it’s better for you and for us and for our relations,” says Abbas. Then the American president politely made what Abbas describes as a “list of sanctions” Palestinians would endure if the vote went ahead. Among other things, he warned that Congress would not approve the $475 million in aid America gives the Palestinians. United Nations maneuvering, especially when it relates to the Middle East, is usually the equivalent of a political Ambien. But Abbas believes a resolution that recognises a new state of Palestine in the 1967 borders would be a game changer, especially if it has the support of the world’s leading democracies. Which is why Paris is the fifth European capital he’s visited in the past six weeks. Judging by Israel’s response, he might not be wrong. In a speech to Israel supporters in New York last month, the usually unflappable defence minister, Ehud Barak, warned that Israel faces deep isolation, a “diplomatic tsunami,” come September.
© Newsweek

No comments:

Post a Comment