When it comes to the Israel-Palestinian peace process, the White House, European Union, and the broader international community are infused with moral inversion. Israel has successfully weathered multiple wars seeking to eradicate it. Had it lost a single one, the genocide conducted against Israeli citizens by the conquering Arab armies would have likely surpassed the mass slaughters conducted by the Khmer Rouge, Pakistani Army in Bangladesh, and Hutu rebels in Rwanda to become the worst atrocity of the second half of the twentieth century.
Often, when countries spark a war of aggression or annihilation and lose, they can expect to pay a price for their decisions. Saddam Hussein, for example, received no rewards for seeking to annex Kuwait, nor did Argentina win benefit for seizing the Falkland Islands. Rather, both countries paid a price. Not so with the Arab states who surround Israel.
The Palestinians, however, have never had a country. Technically, they did not launch the wars against Israel (Intifadas aside), even as those wars were often launched in the name of the Palestinians. Historically, Palestinian nationalism might be artificial, but it would be foolish to deny the Palestinian nationalism that both grew alongside Zionism and as a result of the persecution that Palestinians suffered in almost every Arab state. That the Palestinians will be at the table in any peace process simply reflects reality.
One of the greatest mistakes both U.S. and Israeli policymakers have made in their recent diplomatic interaction with Palestinians has been to revive a craven and corrupt PLO leadership. After having turned on the Jordanian monarchy in 1970, and then having helped spark the Lebanese civil war before then suffer an ignominious defeat and exile following the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, the PLO leadership was on its way to irrelevance in Tunisian exile.
Bill Clinton and his peace team (as well as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) entered office with tremendous personal ambition that, at times, would trump diplomatic good sense. Hence, when he turned his attention to Middle East peace, he threw under the bus the grassroots Palestinian activists who had risen to prominence during the first Intifada and instead sought to revive the exiled PLO leadership in Tunisia. The theory was, in short, that autocracies could better deliver peace.
This was nonsensical on any number of levels. Yasir Arafat was interested in Yasir Arafat, and not what was good for ordinary Palestinians. He accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars and sought to leverage the Palestinian suffering — much of which he was responsible for — into greater power.
In the end, Arafat thumbed his nose at Clinton. At the Camp David II conference, he refused a deal which even his negotiators had blessed and refused to make a counter offer. When push came to shove, he simply was unwilling to compromise on his anti-Semitism, his prioritization of armed struggle above peace, or ending his revanchism.
In subsequent years, the Palestinians had a second chance: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor a deal — Palestinian independence, a shared Jerusalem, a very limited but symbolic right-of-return, territory swaps — and Abbas walked away.
Abbas, who is currently in the 11th year of his four-year presidential term, is as authoritarian as Arafat and equally disinterested in the lives and ambitions of ordinary Palestinians. Hence his refusal to meet with Netanyahu without conditions, a boycott for which only the morally and factually inverted could blame the Israeli prime minister.
Olmert’s 2008 offer may have conceded too much, but once an offer is on the table, it is hard to walk it back. Perhaps it is then time for the Israeli government to bypass Abbas altogether and present the final Olmert offer to the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza in the guise of a referendum. There is legal authority to do this: Once Abbas declared he would no longer abide by the 2003 Oslo process, he effectively voided his own legitimacy, as the very existence of the Palestinian Authority rests on the commitments enshrined in the Oslo Accords.
Now, there could be two outcomes to negotiations:
Either the Palestinians could accept independence within the borders put forward in the Olmert map and accept the limits on return, or they could reject the deal. If the former, any tolerance for Abbas’ constant efforts to leverage violence into concession should end, as the Palestinians will have achieved their state, their years of “resistance” finally over. And if the Palestinian people refuse such a deal — in effect, rejecting any peace with Israel — then what has become apparent even to many on the Israeli left, that Israel is not the impediment to peace, should be undeniable even to those in the international community whose knee-jerk reaction is always to blame Israel and exculpate Palestinians.
The only casualty of such a referendum would be Abbas’ legitimacy, but that should have ended with his presidential term, in 2009. That would be a welcome price to pay.