Decade after decade, one administration after another has set in motion what has been called a “peace process.” None has come close to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Over the past year, President Trump has been hoping he might succeed where others have failed. He tasked trusted advisers, unburdened by the errors of past peace processes, to work on this “ultimate deal.” But the events of recent days should leave no doubt in his or anyone else’s mind: A Palestinian leader shaking hands with an Israeli leader on the White House lawn is inconceivable for the foreseeable future.
One of the reasons why became vivid last Friday night when Iranian forces operating from an air base in Syria launched a drone into Israeli airspace. An Israeli Apache helicopter downed it. Israel then sent eight F-16s to destroy the Iranian command center in Syria. One of the jets was overwhelmed by what the Israelis describe as “massive Syrian anti-aircraft fire.” The pilots returned to Israeli airspace where they ejected. Both survived. Their plane crashed on Israeli territory.
No Palestinian leader condemned this provocation. No Palestinian leader has ever condemned Tehran, whose intentions toward Israel are openly annihilationist.
Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy militia, has tens of thousands of missiles pointing at Israeli targets from Lebanon, a country it now effectively rules. Hezbollah is openly genocidal toward both Israelis and Jews. The leader of the “Party of God,” Hassan Nasrallah, has said: if “the Jews will gather from all parts of the world into occupied Palestine there the final and decisive battle will take place.”
Hamas, the major power in Gaza, and a not insignificant presence in the West Bank, holds identical views about Israelis and Jews. (See the Hamas Covenant.) Hamas believes that any territory ever conquered by Muslims cannot be surrendered to non-Muslims. These are not negotiating positions. They are a matter of ideology and theology for Hamas, as they are for Hezbollah and Iran’s theocrats. So for Hamas, peace with Israel is not an option.
Within this environment, it would require a Palestinian leader of enormous independence, charisma and courage to negotiate an end to the conflict. Mahmoud Abbas is not that leader.
Elected in 2005 to a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority, which (loosely) governs the West Bank, Mr. Abbas has remained in that post without benefit of re-election. In recent statements, he has made clear that he does not accept the basic premise of a two-state solution: two states for two peoples — one of those peoples being the Jewish people.
He does not recognize that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in any part of their ancient homeland. He recently said that Jerusalem “is Arab, Muslim and Christian” — conspicuously omitting Jerusalem’s Jewish roots.
It’s been years since Mr. Abbas has been willing to negotiate with Israelis. Instead, he’s taken part in a campaign to delegitimize Israel. This includes U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which passed in late 2016 (because President Obama declined to veto it), and asserts that Israel has no rights in the eastern sections of Jerusalem — not even the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, not even Judaism’s holiest sites, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has at least helped halt the momentum of this destructive narrative.
It’s important to understand: This delegitimization campaign has the strategic intent of justifying attacks against Israel — by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and others — as “resistance” to an “illegitimate regime” that sooner or later is to be fatally poisoned by a cocktail of violence, economic warfare and diplomacy. So long as that goal appears even remotely realistic, no Palestinian leader can settle for less without painting a bull’s-eye on his back. And no Israeli leader can contemplate serious compromises.
Mr. Abbas opposes “normalization” with Israel, effectively preventing Israelis and Palestinians from working together, getting to know one another, perhaps discovering they need not be enemies forever.
The BDS campaign — for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — is an integral part of this “anti-normalization” effort. It also is an important cause of high unemployment and poverty in the West Bank.
Mr. Abbas is 82. At some point, he will leave the scene and a new peace process may be developed. But that will depend on who succeeds him. According to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council is to “temporarily” assume the powers and duties of the PA president. Right now, that position is held by a Hamas official who, according to the Israelis, has been involved in “terrorist activities.”
After 60 days, there are to be “free” elections. Considering how long it’s been since there have been any elections in the West Bank and Gaza, how likely is that? And if — as has been the pattern in the Middle East for countless centuries — power is taken by force of arms instead, who is likely to prevail? Hamas? Hezbollah? Other jihadi groups?
For those in the Trump administration focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the task now is to work with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab partners, as well as any pragmatic elements within the Palestinian Authority, to determine whether it may be possible to develop a next generation of Palestinian leaders who are open to conflict resolution; who do not view peaceful coexistence with Israel as tantamount to defeat. The magnitude of this challenge, a prerequisite for any meaningful new peace process, cannot be overestimated.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.