The full version of this interview is published in Fathom Journal.
Fathom assistant editor Samuel Nurding sat down with Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon to discuss their new book The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus Books, 2017). Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Tibon is the Washington D.C. correspondent for Haaretz.
Abbas and the early years
SN: Let’s start with Abbas’s early life. His family left Safed due to the 1948 war when he was 13. He was old enough to understand that event and to store memories of it. How important was 1948 for Abbas’s political thinking?
AT: Abbas’s political legitimacy is based on his early experience. He is not only the leader today, not only a founding member of the Palestinian national movement, but a man who can represent the whole Palestinian narrative and population in a way that future Palestinian leaders will not be able to do. This is something Israelis are not always very appreciative of. In Israel we like to talk reverentially about our founding fathers, the generation of David Ben-Gurion, and how we had leaders and people totally committed to the national project. This is the standing that the founding generation of Fatah, and especially Abbas, has on the Palestinian side. A large percentage of people involved or interested in the conflict are not fully aware or appreciative of this fact when they talk about Abbas.
SN: Abbas opposed Arafat’s armed resistance throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and ‘risked his life’ in opposing the second intifada according to one senior Israeli official in the book. How difficult was it for Abbas to take a line against the use of violence, as he has done for decades?
GR: Abbas was well aware of the risks of advocating the two-state solution at the time. Members of the PLO who were meeting with Israeli leftists in the 1970s and 1980s were being assassinated by rival Palestinian factions. There are two competing views of why Abbas has pursued peace negotiations for so long. One opinion thinks Abbas at times saw tactical merit to violence but never bought into it as a strategy and therefore thought negotiations were the best way forward. The more cynical view claims that Abbas believes that long drawn out conflicts end in negotiations and that if he could make himself the chief negotiator and expert on Israeli politics then at a certain point in time he would ultimately be in charge.
Both of those strategies run a significant risk of blowback from his peers – a famous example is Issam Sartawi, who was assassinated by rival PLO groups for advocating recognition of Israel. It wasn’t until the Oslo Process in 1993 and the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that Abbas had the political cover to advocate for negotiations and non-violence, because that’s the spirit of Oslo.
Abbas the negotiator
SN: Abbas was involved in two very important sets of peace talks, and in very different ways. The first was the Oslo Accords [and the secret Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement] and the other was the 2000 Camp David talks. In the book you show how instrumental Abbas was in concluding the Oslo Accords, yet you write of the Camp David Summit that the one consensus which emerged was that Abbas’s conduct had been unhelpful. How did Abbas change from the champion of the peace process in 1993 to the ‘least flexible negotiator’ at Camp David?
GR: In the years between Oslo and Camp David, the peace process becomes a contact sport for Abbas. Everything prior was something of an academic exercise for him – doing his research, writing his books and his controversial PhD thesis – where he was able to advocate a certain position and no one had to seriously debate it. When his strategy becomes the primary objective of the PLO other actors become involved and Arafat is unprepared for this. As regards the secretly-agreed Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, it’s the leak, the subsequent blowback from the Palestinian street and Arafat’s disavowing of what Abbas had compromised on, that kills the agreement. I regard this event as one of the seminal moments in his life. The negotiations and the positions in that agreement were consistent with what he had advocated and communicated in the past. The retaliation and blowback is completely new, and it shocked him and showed him how unequipped he was to combat criticisms of his policy.
You can see the roots of his behaviour in Camp David in the Beilin-Abu Mazen experience, not to mention that in the run up to the Summit, Arafat, typically, was playing his deputies off against one another. For example, he empowered Ahmed Qurei [Abu Ala] with a Swedish back-channel in the months before and Abbas was extremely upset when he found out. So Abbas entered Camp David paranoid, risk-adverse and unwilling to put his neck out because he had been burnt many times before.
AT: Abbas’s conduct at Camp David was a real surprise to a lot of Israelis who respected and appreciated him, as well as to the American team. The Palestinians were less surprised by his behaviour because – unlike the Americans and Israelis – they didn’t see the peace process as independent to Palestinian politics. The fact that he had been the earliest supporter of a two-state solution as well as the most consistent leader for negotiations and non-violence didn’t mean that Abbas was free from his own domestic political considerations too. Camp David was the moment this was exposed.
On the way to Camp David the Americans and the Israelis also made decisions that pushed Abbas into an uncomfortable position. For example the Americans gave Mohammad Dahlan a very large welcome and lots of invitations to talks and dinners, which unsettled Abbas. The Israelis contributed to his isolation and irrelevancy in the talks by including no one in their negotiation team who had prior history of dealing with Abbas (either before or after Oslo). We include one interesting story in the book concerning a senior Israeli official in [then Prime Minister] Ehud Barak’s office who said, ‘Why don’t we bring Yossi Beilin to Camp David because of his negotiating experience and his connection to Abbas?’ As we know, Barak was not convinced. We can ask a millions ‘what ifs’ regarding the Camp David summit, but I think this is one of the more interesting what ifs – might a different approach by the US and the Americans have produced a more effective Abbas?
SN: What in your mind is Abbas’s greatest achievement to date, his greatest mistake to date and the legacy he will leave behind for Palestinians?
GR: His greatest achievement is the Oslo Process and bringing and solidifying the two-state solution into the Palestinian political discourse. For me the culmination of that process was this year’s Fatah Congress. I sat through his three plus hour speech to members of his own party where he defended his decisions to go to Oslo and talk with Israelis and gave a hearty defence of the two-state solution and the non-violence approach. I look back at the conflict and these were the things we begged Arafat to do – he was famous for saying one thing in Arabic for his own audience and another thing in English to the international community. Yet this is what Abbas is willing to stake his legacy on. He brought the notion of peace into the accepted Palestinian framework for statehood and, if nothing else, that is his greatest achievement.
That does not mean his legacy hasn’t been diminished because, like Amir said, his greatest mistake was not accepting the Obama proposal. You can’t really ask for a better situation, from a Palestinian standpoint, than having your leader sitting in the White House with a US president, two years left on his term, willing to go to bat for you vis-à-vis the Israelis. And I think his legacy will be that of missed opportunity. Shimon Peres called him the greatest partner for peace because of his role in Oslo, but ultimately his deficiencies outweighed his strengths and he will likely leave a quagmire.
AT: I want to offer one defence of Abbas. When we talk about a missed opportunity it works both ways because Abbas is also a missed opportunity for Israel – especially when you look at the entire gallery of Palestinian and Arab leaders. There have been Arab leaders much more powerful than Abbas, and better able to withstand greater public pressures or attempts to question their legitimacy, who have shown much less courage than President Abbas when it comes to peace talks, normalisation with Israel and even open discussions with Israeli leaders. There is a tendency now to say that Israelis, the Americans and the international community doesn’t need Abbas, we can work with other Arab leaders for a regional peace. They are wrong. There are very powerful Arab leaders in the region who have secret relations with Israel but do not dare to do anything in the open. But there is still Abbas, much weaker, with internal constraints and who isn’t perfect, but has taken real risks for peace. The fact he will soon to leave the stage with his life project incomplete is a big loss for all sides.