Hani al-Masri
September 26, 2011 - 12:00am

President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be a new man. What led to this change? Since taking office, he has always said that only negotiations can lead to the establishment of the state. When the talks faltered or faced an obstacle, he often said, "The alternative to negotiations is the negotiations." When President Abbas set conditions for the resumption of negotiations, these quickly became mere demands. Even in recent days, he repeated that negotiations were his first, second, and third choice.

When Abbas announced his intention to go to the United Nations, the strong US opposition meant that even some of his supporters did not believe that he would follow through. His speech at the UN resolved their doubts, however, and raised the ceiling of the Palestinian position.

Abbas' speech derived strength from the justice of the Palestinian cause and determination to proceed with the application for full membership of the state of Palestine to the Security Council, despite Israeli and US pressure and threats as well as "suggestions" from Palestinian, Arab and international friends. The president refused to compromise by making a request for non-member status at the UN General Assembly, either within the package presented by French President Nicholas Sarkozy or as a first step followed by the submission of the application to the Security Council.

The "old" Abu Mazen would have agreed to resume negotiations on the basis of the European initiative, but he preferred the challenge, despite the risks. What lion has grown in the heart of Abbas to turn him into a new person? What made him stick to his terms for the resumption of negotiations?

There are a number of factors and causes that transformed the president into a new national leader, militant in his demands and willing to risk losing the patronage of the US president. They begin with the fact that the path of negotiations has reached an impasse because of the rock-hard intransigence of the Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, which appears impenetrable for the foreseeable future. Most indicators and surveys in Israel suggest that the current Israeli government will live out its term and that even new elections (early or on time) will produce a government at least as radical as the current one.

To make matters worse, the US administration reneged on its promises and US President Barack Obama now seems more favorable to Israel than any previous president. Estimates are that amid the increasingly feverish competition for the presidency, the US--where electoral candidates are competing over who offers more support for Israel--cannot be expected to exercise any serious pressure on the government of Israel until after the US presidential elections. Without this pressure, there will be no resumption in talks and no reaching of a peace agreement.

Abu Mazen has concluded that the next two years, at least, will see no progress in the peace process. This period will be sufficient for the Israeli government to create a fait accompli, destroy the Palestinian dream of statehood and undermine the Palestinian Authority until its collapse.

But the "Arab spring" is the most determinant factor in the change in Abbas. It has removed the weight of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from his chest and opened up the possibility for Palestinians to think of new options and alternatives. Affirming the Arab people's quest for democracy, and considering regional and international changes (especially the deterioration in the Egyptian-Israeli and Turkish-Israeli relationships), Abu Mazen's clock sensed it was time for the Palestinian spring and independence.

Still, the solution is not at the door or even a stone's throw away. We must work hard and make one last attempt to end the stalemate in the peace process by changing the rules of the negotiations, a matter that needs a real change in the balance of power on the ground. It is no longer possible to address the blockage in the horizon of the talks with the means tried and failed over the years.

Abu Mazen dreams of achieving the goal of statehood, and when he began to see that dream slip away, increasingly unlikely under his leadership, he sought to leave the scene as a hero and a stubborn defender of Palestinian rights. He wanted to refute the charges of weakness and caving in that have dogged him, particularly after his decision to postpone the UN Goldstone report that charged Israel with war crimes in Gaza.

One cannot explain Abu Mazen's position without this personal dimension. He does not want to carry a gun and die a martyr, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, but he has chosen to stand fast and use popular resistance to try to achieve a settlement on the basis of clear inalienable benchmarks. Either that, or he will develop a new strategy inspired by the spirit of spring in the region, one that will unite Palestinians and open the window of hope that they will achieve their goals of freedom, return and independence.

As such, Abu Mazen's speech expressed the historical suffering, hope and aspirations of the Palestinian people and was answered with warm applause and numerous standing ovations.

In comparison, Netanyahu's speech was weak and worn-out, arguing lawyerishly about unfairness--to the extent that the hall became dark and sober. He then moved from attack to defense, wearing the clothes of an innocent. He said, on one hand, that he is keen on peace and called for the resumption of negotiations. Then he said that Palestine was "the land of Israel" and that Palestinians have foiled all peace initiatives because they refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the owners of this land.

Netanyahu repeated the broken Israeli record about willingness for a permanent peace and the generous gestures it has extended, only to be met by terrorism and Palestinian inertia. Israel is a small state surrounded by enemies who want to destroy it, he said, insisting on the primacy of security. He then claimed that Israel seeks the establishment of the state (as if it has not eliminated all chances for Palestine through Israel's settlement expansion, apartheid wall, the separation and isolation of Jerusalem, and the siege and aggression against Gaza).

Netanyahu said that the concept of security means that a demilitarized Palestinian state should include long-term security arrangements, including the continued presence of Israeli forces and control of borders, air and water so that the area cannot be used as a base for launching rockets at towns and sensitive sites in Israel.

Has Netanyahu forgotten that the achievement of peace is the best, fastest and cheapest way to achieve security? Israel can continue its occupation, relying on force and military security and the lack of Arab and international development as deterrence. But for how long? Israel often says that it cannot afford to lose a single war, but its ability to win wars is decreasing. It is no longer able to achieve lightning-quick victory far from the home front. Given the new variables in the Arab and international sphere, will Israel not regret making peace once adverse conditions are forced upon her?

The new Abu Mazen has become even more removed from the old Netanyahu, so that the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli attitudes has become wider. We cannot now turn back the clock and return to sterile negotiations.

What is needed is to allow the new factors and rules to change the balance of power, then for a reference and framework to be set for the peace process. Statements are not enough--they are quickly overcome or emptied of content. There can be no achievements at the negotiating table until action is imposed on the land of the conflict.


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