Mahmoud Abbas’ op-ed in the NY Times is a must-read document. Here are my initial thoughts on it.
Carefully constructed, Abbas’ op-ed both champions the traditional Palestinian narrative, suggesting that Israel was ‘born in sin’, but also leaves much room for a two-state peace on the basis of the pre-’67 Green Line.
Abbas’ frame for the conflict is the Palestinian refugee issue. This is understandable – after all, besides being a refugee himself, Abbas is the head of the Palestinian national liberation movement, not a member of the World Zionist Organization, and the Nakba is the central feature in the Palestinian national narrative. Jewish concerns and rights are not mentioned – but, again, Abbas’ purpose here is not to present a balanced view, but to promote the interests of his own people. I would expect Binyamin Netanyahu to take a similar approach when he goes to the US later this week.
What is most important is that, when it comes to a practical solution, Abbas is very clear regarding the territorial dimension of a future peace: A Palestinian state on 22% of what was once British Mandate Palestine – i.e., the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. And, even more important, is the broad hint in his concluding paragraph that the refugee issue will have to be resolved within the borders of that 22%.
Perhaps Netanyahu can learn a lesson from this op-ed: One does not have to forsake one’s traditional narrative; one simply needs to offer realistic, practical terms for ending the Occupation and moving towards peace. Reconciling the two conflicting narratives will likely have to wait until the Occupation ends.
I’m less pleased with Abbas’ suggestion that the Palestinian refugee situation was the result of a premeditated Zionist/Israeli plot. Israel played a significant role in 1947-48, including in the creation of the refugee problem, but Abbas’ historical presentation here is too harshly uni-dimensional. This is the op-ed’s weakest aspect.
Also of interest is Abbas’ suggestion, between the lines, that negotiations can only resume once Palestine is admitted to the UN. Though very few expect a breakthrough before the September UN General Assembly vote, it is the first time that the Palestinian president has publicly indicated that the Palestinians would only restart negotiations on the basis of two sovereign states. He also gives clear warning that, in the absence of real negotiations, sovereign Palestine will press its case through the institutions of international law.
This is not a document that lovers of Israel will swoon over. But it is a text that reconfirms that President Abbas is ready for the compromises necessary to reach peace with Israel. And it is an op-ed that Abbas was willing to publish even within the context of Fatah-Hamas national unity.