Abbas and Netanyahu in Wonderland

By Charles Freilich

The Middle East has always marched to its own drumbeat, lived in its own special reality, but Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are taking matters to a new level.

The Palestinians, for whom national unity has always been a foremost priority, given their geographic separation and consequent fear that this could become an even deeper national fissure, are hopelessly divided between the fanatical "Hamastan" in Gaza and the feckless Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. No elections have been held for seven years and the prospects for true reconciliation are as distant as ever, probably more so, even if Hamas' great "victory" during Operation Pillar of Defense may lead to a fleeting papering over of differences.

Egypt and Jordan, the twin Arab pillars of the peace process and forces of Arab moderation, the PA's primary sources of support, are in deep trouble.

The entire Arab world is coming apart, the century old map of the Middle East possibly crumbling before our very eyes, further decreasing the Arabs' ability to actually support the Palestinian cause. Sixty-four dysfunctional years later, the Palestinians are as far from a state as ever.

So what does Abbas do? Renew negotiations, after refusing to do so for three years, or moderate positions in a way that might facilitate agreement? No. He once again manifests the long-standing Palestinian preference for showmanship over substance, achieving a dramatic feel-good PR victory in the UN, which will bring the Palestinians not one inch closer to actual statehood. So what else is new. The Palestinians have always preferred the afterglow of diplomatic grandiloquence and international approbation, a fantasy state in their minds, over the difficult compromises required by negotiations - the only way they will ever achieve statehood. It is so much easier to revel in the support of the General Assembly than to muster the political courage and wherewithal needed for a negotiated settlement.

Receive email alerts

[+] More

And Netanyahu, who deserves considerable credit for having successfully galvanized world attention on Iran during the past year, for conducting Operation Pillar of Defense in a way that not only realized Israel's primary goals, but also enjoyed surprising international support, and who succeeded in deflecting attention from a peace process that was unfortunately not going anywhere in any event, has now refocused attention on the Palestinian issue.

Pillar of Defense may have been a necessary short-term diversion from Iran, but did Israel have to respond to the UN decision by reviving long moribund settlement plans in Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem, that it will probably not implement any way and whose sole practical import is to infuriate the entire world, including the US and Europe? Were there no other options, or have we too become more interested in form than substance? Do we truly wish to cut off funding to the PA and undermine the security cooperation which has significantly contributed to the near total absence of terrorism from the West Bank in recent years? The premier has frivolously squandered vital interests.

Israel is in the midst of what Americans call the "silly season," the period prior to elections, when politics run rampant. Pandering to one's constituency prior to elections is an old established democratic practice, but the entire Middle East is in flames and undergoing a fundamental transformation that is likely to lead to a dramatic deterioration in Israel's strategic fortunes.

What began as a hopeful Arab Spring is rapidly evolving into an Islamist nightmare and we are in danger of being surrounded by radical failed states and all sides. Egypt and Syria are already tottering, Jordan may be too.

The danger of Syrian use of chemical weapons has grown and along with it the horrifying specter that they will fall into the hands of Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. 2013 was supposed to be the critical year on Iran, not a period in which Israel would, through its own actions, refocus world attention on the Palestinians. The peace process was unlikely to have gone anywhere in any event, due to Palestinian obstinacy, but Netanyahu's demonstrative actions convince the world that the blame is almost entirely ours.

Strategic wisdom would indicate that we should be doing everything possible to minimize all distractions and secondary issues, enable the world to focus on the supreme issue, Iran, and now Syrian WMD too.

Israel faces dire, historic decisions in the coming year. With his electoral victory virtually assured - and even if this were not the case - it is time for the premier to get his strategic priorities right. This is true for Abbas and the Palestinians as well, but then, they always prefer to live in Wonderland.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School and teaches political science. He is the author of Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy. He is a former deputy national security adviser of Israel.

Sponsored Links
Related Articles
November 29, 2012
A European "Maybe" for Palestine - Ana Palacio
December 11, 2012
The Israeli Periphery - Reva Bhalla
Charles Freilich
Author Archive