That the Biden administration regards Israel as a more congenial and cooperative diplomatic partner than the Palestinian Authority was evident from the remarks delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a Security Council briefing on the Middle East last week.
Referring to the address to the General Assembly delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid—who offered both a robust defense of the Zionist enterprise and an endorsement of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians—Thomas-Greenfield praised his “courageous and impassioned speech.” The significance of an Israeli leader’s call for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel “should not be underestimated,” she emphasized.
In the meantime, P.A. chief Mahmoud Abbas was merely “acknowledged” by the American envoy for his “stated commitment to non-violence and reaffirmation of his support for a two-state solution.” The plaudits for Lapid the visionary were noticeably absent in the case of Abbas, indicating that the Palestinian leader still vexes the patience of his international partners.
Yet whatever the frustrations with Abbas that were being subtly expressed here, they have still to be articulated at the level of policy. In essence, the international community’s parameters for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain the same: Recognition that both sides have a claim to justice and that both sides can legitimately claim the right to sovereignty. Hence the solution: A Palestinian state next to, and not in place of, the State of Israel. And hence the reason we are hearing the same unimaginative platitudes about a conflict that has resisted a resolution for the best part of a century.
As has long been the case, the issue is not the solution so much as the means of getting there. Separate sovereignties and a division of the land are uncomplicated and reasonable ideas. But in order to work, there needs be an element of trust, and that is what has been sorely lacking.
That is why, when Abbas is taken at his word by a senior American diplomat in terms of his commitment to non-violence and a negotiated compromise, serious questions need to be asked. In terms of bloodcurdling rhetoric targeting Israel, Abbas is not the worst Palestinian leader, but his willingness to promote some of the ugliest slanders against the Jewish state compels one to ask just how genuine his support for two states and non-violence actually is.
Like all Palestinian leaders, whether from nationalist or Islamist factions, Abbas was formed politically by the Arab world’s decision, following Israel’s creation in 1948, to live in a permanent state of conflict with the Jewish state as a step towards its eventual elimination. This fact alone marked out the Palestinian cause from other nationalist struggles around the world. In most other post-World War II conflicts—such as in Northern Ireland, where the Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged a bitter struggle for the expulsion of the British Army, but not the dissolution of the United Kingdom itself—the goals of the nationalist parties were limited to ridding their countries of the colonial presence without destroying the colonizing power. By contrast, for the Palestinians, the message was that their liberation would be incomplete as long as Israel remained on the map.
Abbas has never disavowed the notion that Israel is an interloper and a colonizer. In his most recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he denounced the Jewish state for its alleged “apartheid” policies. In Germany only last month, he caused a scandal when he stood alongside Chancellor Olaf Scholz and sullenly declared that Israel was guilty of perpetrating “50 holocausts” upon the Palestinians. This was in response to a journalist’s query about whether he would finally apologize to the families of the 11 Israeli athletes murdered in a Palestinian terrorist operation at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
What Thomas-Greenfield’s statement elides is that Abbas is far more wedded to these dubious ideas—the bedrock of the Palestinian eliminationist program—than he is to the diplomatic goals articulated at the Security Council. The rhetoric about two states can only be seen as lip service, unless one is prepared to accept the bizarre contention that having denounced Israel as a racist open-air prison for Palestinians, they would happily live alongside it. The rhetoric about Israel’s lack of legitimacy, however, is firmly in keeping with the Palestinians’ own ideology.
Yet there are many Israelis who, despite having no illusions about Abbas and his cohorts, rue the prospect of indefinitely ruling over three million Palestinians. Under certain circumstances, they might even be relieved to see the creation of a Palestinian state. For that to happen, the international community has to understand that while the emergence of a “strong and legitimate Palestinian Authority” might well be “in the interest of the entire region”—as Thomas-Greenfield put it—as long as Abbas and those like him are running the show, we are fated to remain with the present situation: Eliminationist rhetoric against Israel and attacks on Israeli civilians, widespread corruption within the P.A. and appalling abuse of human rights in P.A.-run prisons and detention centers.
A courageous diplomatic initiative would propose root and branch reform of the PA as the first necessary measure towards securing a permanent peace with Israel. Such reform would then be followed by fresh elections in a voting process that would be monitored by international organizations to ensure fairness and transparency. At the same time, the P.A.’s various departments, and particularly its Education Ministry, would undergo a fundamental reset, so that a lasting peace with Israel is the overarching goal to work towards.
There will be those who say this is all wishful thinking, and perhaps they are right. But the responsibility for testing the theory lies with the U.S. and indeed any state desirous of a final settlement. Because right now, the P.A. is not strong, nor legitimate, nor an entity whose continued existence is in “the interest of the entire region.” Thomas-Greenfield needs to grasp that the address for these vital changes is located in Ramallah, not Jerusalem.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.