Abba Eban, Israel’s legendary representative to the United Nations, once famously remarked that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proved Eban’s point Friday, in an incendiary speech to the UN General Assembly in which he accused Israel of “a new war of genocide” against the Palestinian people.
Another opportunity squandered. During the Gaza War this summer, Abbas had positioned himself as a picture of moderation. When Hamas was accused of having kidnapped the three teenagers whose abduction set off this summer’s violence, Abbas condemned the kidnapping in no uncertain terms. As the war with Hamas dragged on, the Palestinian Authority was party to the cease-fire negotiations. When Israel and Egypt hammered out the details of who would monitor border crossings and the use of construction material in Gaza to prevent the construction of new tunnels, even Hamas accepted the notion of Palestinian Authority monitors.
Israelis are not terribly inclined to make grand gestures for peace right now — the region is in too much turmoil for anyone to know what a smart move would be. Yet many Israelis also know that international pressure for some accommodation of Palestinian national aspirations will only grow. Prominent Israeli public intellectuals continue to worry about the corrosive effect of keeping millions of Palestinians under our military thumb on our national moral well-being. So suddenly, Israelis had begun to wonder whether Abbas might be the guy with whom to make the deal.
Why, therefore, would Abbas do something as seemingly stupid, alienating almost every Israeli, and even evoking a highly critical reaction from the Barack Obama administration? While the move was, in fact, a mistake, it was a calculated one. Abbas decided that for now, he needed to play to his street. Sadly, the Palestinian Authority has never prepared its citizens for the compromises a deal will require. Abbas knows that Israel is here to stay, but his accusation that Israel was engaging in “genocidal warfare against the Palestinian people” reeked of utter delegitimization. Abbas knows that Israel will never agree to the return of anything more than a token number of Palestinian refugees to Israel, for that would undermine Israel’s Jewish demographic majority, forcing Israel to choose between being democratic or Jewish, neither of which is negotiable. But he continues to promise that the refugees will return.
The Arab street is more radical than its government in many places. Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, but Egyptian TV continues to broadcast highly inflammatory anti-Semitic programming, creating a sense among Egyptians — which continues to this day — that the agreement is an oddity or an anomaly, at best. Jordan’s King Abdullah II may be modern in his appearance and moderate in his lexicon, but his street is no less radicalized. And the same is true of the Palestinian street, which just honored the murderers of the three Israelis teenagers.
Pandering to his street’s basest instincts, Abbas proved that he cannot lead. Whatever the opposite of leadership is, is precisely what Abbas did at the UN.
In so doing, he reminded even left-wing Israelis why the center and the right want nothing to do with him. In so doing, he reminded Israelis who might have been willing to overlook it that he was an avid promoter of the unity government with Hamas. In so doing, he pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to suggest, in his response at the UN, that Israel would seek alliances with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In so doing, therefore, Abbas slammed the door on the possibility of any negotiated deal with Israel in the near future.
Israelis are nervous about the shifting sands all around them, but most understand that just as Israel is going nowhere, so too the Palestinians are here to stay. Just as Israelis had national aspirations some 70 years ago and would not relent until they were realized, so too with the Palestinians. The difference is that Israelis have often been led by people who were willing to change their positions. Menachem Begin, sought by the British as Terrorist No. 1, made peace with Egypt and returned the Sinai Peninsula — even though he had to battle his own cabinet to get the deal approved. Ariel Sharon, the controversial military leader of Unit 101, pulled Israel out of Gaza, despite the move’s unpopularity. Netanyahu, who used to reject the mere idea of a Palestinian state, has now openly accepted it — much to the chagrin of some of his party’s leadership.
But as Abbas reminded us on Friday, there has been no similar movement on the Palestinian side. There are many reasons the Palestinians do not have a state, but chief among them is that the Palestinians have never had a genuine leader. They have figureheads, fearful of leading and unwilling to goad their citizens into thinking differently about Israel, refugees and their own future. So, they watch and wait, as those who call themselves leaders make mistake after mistake, consigning Palestinians to a life that sadly, once again, seems unlikely to change.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem. He is the author of Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul and The Promise of Israel.