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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Abbas’s Washington charm offensive

Key Points

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visit to Washington D.C. earlier this month was lauded by several commentators as a “charm offensive”.
  • When Netanyahu travels to the US on 6 July, he will be seeking to equally convince the US of his serious commitment to the peace process, and to win support for his core positions.
  • The Palestinian President sought to win support not only from the White House, but unusually, reached out directly to Israel’s supporters in Washington.
  • Maintaining Western backing is all the more important for Abbas as the relaxing of the blockade on Gaza has the potential to strengthen his Hamas rivals.

Introduction

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visit to Washington D.C. earlier this month was lauded by several commentators as a “charm offensive“. Abbas’s schedule included a meeting with US President Barack Obama and a joint public statement by the two at the White House. However, unusually for him, the Palestinian President also took part in a series of public events, including a dinner with Jewish leaders and senior Washington figures, an extensive one-hour interview with Charlie Rose, and an address to the Brookings Institution. Brookings’ Vice President and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk noted that Abbas’s high-profile public appearances during his Washington trip were ‘unprecedented’. This analysis looks at the impact of Abbas’s week in Washington, its significance for the peace process, and the implications for Prime Minister Netanyahu ahead of his own visit on 6 July.

Abbas’s Message

Abbas carried a consistent message throughout his visit. He sought to position himself as a credible partner in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a reliable ally for those in the West who would like to see the sides progressing toward a two-state solution. An examination of Abbas’s statements reveals that the Palestinian leader sought to balance traditional Palestinian demands with a conciliatory tone. Abbas repeatedly conveyed his belief that both Israelis and Palestinians urgently need peace to avert further deterioration in regional stability. He explicitly defined peace as “an end of claims” and firmly rejected the idea of a one state solution.

Abbas also made a rare and welcome acknowledgement of the Jewish historical connection to the Land of Israel. He told a Washington gathering, “Nobody denies the Jewish history in the Middle East. A third of holy Quran talks about the Jews in the Middle East, in this area. Nobody from our side, at least, denies that the Jews were in Palestine.” The statement received wide attention in Israel.

Regarding the recently-launched proximity talks, Abbas stressed the Palestinian focus on borders and security. He stated that if there is any progress in the indirect talks, he will be ready for the parties to move to direct talks over other core issues, including Jerusalem, refugees and water. The proposal to address borders first is supported by the Arab League and is viewed positively by US envoy, Senator George Mitchell, who is brokering the talks. Some argue that reaching an agreement on borders could overcome the dispute over settlements, by enabling Israel to resume construction in settlement blocs which it is agreed will remain under Israeli control.

On the issue of borders Abbas called for negotiations to be based on the principle of 1967 borders with agreed land swaps. With regard to the issue of security, Abbas called for a temporary third party force, possibly NATO, to be positioned in the future Palestinian State to meet Israel’s security requirements.

In his public events, Abbas repeatedly referred to his negotiations with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The former Israeli PM has accused Abbas of failing to respond to his peace proposals at the end of 2008. In Washington, Abbas tried to use his talks with Olmert to his advantage, by calling for Netanyahu to accept the principles that he claims were agreed with Olmert, including the 1967 borders as the basis for territorial negotiations. Netanyahu does not consider himself bound by positions taken by Olmert in talks as they were never concluded.

A Palestinian diplomatic offensive

Abbas’s itinerary included some unusual items, and apparently reflects a calculated new strategy in Palestinian public diplomacy in the US. The event marked a Palestinian effort to reach out to American political elites and power groups outside the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon, and engaged directly with Israel’s supporters in Washington. A dinner organised by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace deserves particular attention. The event was attended by leaders of major pro-Israel Jewish organisations, several leading Conservative figures, who held positions in the Bush administration, and members of the Washington think-tank community.

Winning support among some of Israel’s traditional supporters can potentially mitigate criticism of the Palestinians if the diplomatic process comes off the rails in the months ahead. Two critical junctures will be reached in September. They are the end of the ten month Israeli moratorium on settlement construction and the end of the four-month period for indirect talks sanctioned by the Arab League.

The Americans will want to move from indirect to direct talks in September and to see the settlement moratorium extended in order to maintain the diplomatic momentum. Israel also wants direct talks. However, Abbas will not want to take this step without extracting a significant price from Israel. By seeking to convince not only the White House, but Israel’s supporters in Washington, of his seriousness about peace, Abbas hopes to increase pressure on Israel from the US to meet Palestinian demands.

Accounts of the indirect talks so far indicate that come September, the two sides are unlikely to agree that substantive progress has been made, or who is responsible for stalling the process. The US will be the arbiters, and each side will be positioning itself to gain US support for its position.

Abbas’s internal challenge

In approaching talks with Israel, Abbas always has an eye on his domestic constituency and his internal struggle with Hamas, who will be seeking to claim as a victory Israel’s agreement to the relax the border restrictions on Gaza. In Washington, Abbas again pointed the finger directly at Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, over the failure to sign a Palestinian reconciliation agreement. He told CBS interviewer Charlie Rose that Meshaal had rejected the unity agreement under the influence of Iran. Whilst he called for Israel to lift its restrictions on what goods entered Gaza, he repeated, in a meeting at the Brookings Institute, that implementation of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access for Gaza should come in the context of a Palestinian reconciliation agreement.

It is telling that shortly after his Washington trip, Abbas was criticised by several Islamist Palestinian factions for what they perceive to be a conciliatory stance that compromises Palestinian interests. In a joint statement, leaders from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Damascus-based factions said they would reject any international agreement Abbas might strike “on behalf of our people that would target our people’s rights under the guise of peace.”

Abbas’s continues to seek ways to engage in talks without losing political support on the Palestinian street. The Americans remain committed to supporting him and mitigating any benefit derived by Hamas from the relaxation of the Gaza blockade. In this regard, President Obama’s pledge to provide $400 million for reconstruction in Gaza was made alongside Abbas and intended, in part, to provide the Palestinian President with a concrete reward he could take back to the Palestinian people.

A challenge to Israel

After cancelling his scheduled visit to Washington last month, due to the flotilla events, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the US in the first week of July. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak is due meet with US officials in Washington later this week, as is Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor. The peace process is not the only issue on Israel’s agenda. Netanyahu will be seeking ongoing support from the US on the question of Iran, and over international attempts to isolate Israel.

With regard to the peace process, like Abbas, Netanyahu will look to prove his government’s commitment, while seeking US support for Israel’s positions. He will also be keen to remind the Americans of the confidence building measures he has taken so far, including the reduction of checkpoints in the West Bank and the ten-month settlement moratorium.

Netanyahu wants an agreement that a future Palestinian state will be demilitarised, so that the West Bank will not become like Gaza and South Lebanon, bases for Iranian backed militias in the wake of Israeli withdrawal. He insists that an Israeli presence will be necessary in the Jordan valley at least in the initial period after the creation of a Palestinian state. He also seeks Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu will likely encounter sympathy in the US for Israel’s security concerns, but also pressure to move forward on the question of borders.

Conclusion

Abbas’s condition for moving proximity talks forward is for ‘substantive progress’ to be made in indirect talks. But in a framework where the two sides’ positions are still far apart, both parties are manoeuvring for US backing.  Abbas’s visit to Washington appears to have been successful in positioning the Palestinian leader as serious about peace. He was well received not only in the White House, which is already committed to bolstering him against the backdrop of internal Palestinian division, but also among some of Israel’s supporters in Washington. Abbas returned from Washington achieving his main goal, namely, positioning himself in unison with the US national security interest of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This lays down a challenge to Netanyahu to equally convince the Americans of his commitment to the peace process, and win US support for his core demands in the negotiations.