Checkmating the smart Abbas

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PLO chief and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is no idiot. He didn’t survive as Yasser Arafat’s deputy for 40 years and as his successor for 14 by being stupid.

So if he isn’t stupid, why is he attacking the United States? Why did he deliver an anti-American diatribe Monday night that would have made Ho Chi Minh proud? Not only did Abbas call US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman a “son of a dog.” He blamed the US for all the woes of the Arab world.

Abbas said, “The so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ which is lauded by some simple-minded idiots, incapable of thinking, is in fact an ‘American Spring,’ which began in Gaza. We all know how [Hamas] joined the [PA] elections and then staged a coup, having received many [American] guarantees, both implicit and in public, because the US wants to separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, so that there will be no united Palestinian state.”

In other words, everything that happened in the Arab world over the past seven years has been part of an American plot to harm the Palestinians.

Monday’s speech was not Abbas’s first statement of this sort. In January, he bitterly attacked Friedman and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and called for Trump’s “house to be destroyed.”

In the same speech, he said Israel was hooking Palestinian youth on drugs, that Zionism is an imperialist plot cooked up by Oliver Cromwell and that the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel are dead.

Taken together, these two speeches make abundantly clear that Abbas has no interest whatsoever in any accord with Israel. Indeed, they show that Abbas remains the same antisemitic terrorist he was when he wrote his PhD dissertation and a bestselling book both proclaiming the Holocaust was a Zionist plot.

But unfortunately with everything having to do with Abbas, Saul Bellow’s famous quip, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” seems to obtain at the White House.

Trump’s chief negotiator Jason Greenblatt’s response to Abbas’s diatribe was a textbook case of willful ignorance.

“The time has come for President Abbas to choose between hateful rhetoric and concrete and practical efforts to improve the quality of life of his people, and lead them to peace and prosperity.

Notwithstanding his highly inappropriate insults against members of the Trump administration – the latest iteration being his insult of my good friend and colleague Ambassador Friedman – we are committed to the Palestinian people and to the changes that must be implemented for peaceful coexistence.”

Greenblatt added, “We are finalizing our plan for peace and we will advance it when circumstances are right.”

Greenblatt’s statement demonstrated that the Trump administration will not walk away from the conceptual framework the Clinton administration adopted in 1993. That framework places the PLO – and Israeli concessions to the PLO – at the center of US policy in the Middle East.

By saying that the US will present its plan “when circumstances are right,” Greenblatt said that there is no US ultimatum to the PLO. If Abbas doesn’t want a deal, they will wait him out and offer it to his successor, or his successor’s successor.

Whereas all Greenblatt did was make a statement, the Justice Department has put the US’s addiction to the PLO into practice, by siding with the terrorist group against US victims of PLO terrorism.

In 2004, 11 families of US citizens wounded or murdered in PLO terrorist attacks in Israel filed a damages suit against the PLO in federal district court. Ruling on the basis of the 1992 Ant-Terrorism Act, in 2015, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Sokolow v. the PLO. The Anti-Terrorism Act permits US victims of overseas terrorist attacks to sue the perpetrators for damages in federal court.

The court awarded $218.5 million in damages.

That sum was automatically tripled under the statute.

So the PLO was ordered to pay its US victims $655.5m. in punitive damages.

The PLO appealed the ruling, claiming that the US lacks jurisdiction. In August 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concurred and overturned the district court’s verdict.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court.

The court is scheduled to announce on Monday whether it will hear the appeal.

The entire House of Representatives submitted an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to hear the victims’ appeal. The lawmakers noted that the 1992 law was passed precisely to enable terrorism victims like the Sokolow plaintiffs to receive damages for their suffering. Twenty-three senators, spanning the ideological spectrum from Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Sen. Ted Cruz, submitted an amicus brief along the same lines.

Last June, the court asked US Solicitor-General Noel Francisco to submit his own opinion.

Francisco ignored the request for eight months.

Then, late last month, after conferring with State Department and National Security Council officials, late last month Francisco submitted a brief siding with the PLO against its American victims.

Jurists attest that the issue of jurisdiction raised by the PLO is complex. But the complexity of the law recommends against the solicitor-general’s position and for Supreme Court adjudication.

The practical implication of the solicitor-general’s brief is that the US government officially stands with the PLO against its victims and against Congress.

The solicitor-general’s brief, like Greenblatt’s statement, proves that Abbas isn’t stupid. He is rightly convinced that US government support for the PLO is so strong even the Trump administration won’t abandon it.

Many observers argue that events are shifting realities so rapidly that what the administration wants is immaterial. It won’t be able to sustain US support for a PLO-centric Middle East policy over time, even if it wants to.

This week the Senate is set to pass the Taylor Force Act. The measure will cut off a significant portion of US civilian aid to the PA due to PA payments to terrorists and their families. Trump is pledged to sign the bill into law.

As for the Trump team’s peace plan, this week it was reported that the White House decided to delay presenting the plan due to Abbas’s hostility.

Senior sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attest that he subscribes to the view that Israel’s best bet is to keep its head down.

Netanyahu, his associates say, opposes putting forward an Israeli strategy for securing Israel’s interests in Judea and Samaria because he doesn’t want to upstage Trump.

Greenblatt’s statement, and the Justice Department’s support for the PLO against its US victims, show the problem with Netanyahu’s approach.

Israel has long-term interests in Judea and Samaria that are undermined by the two-state formula.

So long as Israel’s interests are held in abeyance out of concern for the PLO, those interests are endangered.

Something has to give.

If the Trump administration won’t take the initiative, Israel has to act.

Although the Trump administration may react negatively to such an Israeli move, a different administration would react much more negatively.

Indeed, whereas Israel could depend on the Obama administration to harm it if it dared to walk away from the failed and dangerous twostate model, Israel has an ally willing to listen to its concerns and intentions in the Trump White House.

To understand what can and must be done, it is important to consider the lessons of two past events.

From 1967 until 1993, US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians was to view the Palestinians as the party responsible for the absence of peace.

The US held that so long as the PLO remained committed to its charter which called for a terrorist war against Israel until the Jewish state is annihilated, the US could have nothing to do with it.

Moreover, the US opposed Palestinian statehood.

In 1993, the Rabin-Peres government went behind the US’s back and opened a secret back channel to the PLO. The Oslo initiative was undertaken without any US involvement. Then-president Bill Clinton didn’t recognize the PLO until after Arafat and then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the first Oslo agreement.

In other words, although supporting the PLO and its demands on Israel has been the centerpiece of the US’s Middle East policy since 1993, the US didn’t initiate the policy. Israel initiated it.

The US merely followed Israel’s lead.

In 1981, like Abbas today, then-Syrian dictator Hafez Assad said he intended to fight Israel for another hundred years.

Then-prime minister Menachem Begin realized that under the circumstances, there was no reason for Israel to maintain its military government on the Golan Heights any longer. Israeli citizens living on the strategic plateau couldn’t be expected to live under a military government based on Syria’s legal code for a hundred years, just to convince the Syrians that Israel wanted peace.

As Begin explained, if the Syrians changed their minds, Israel would negotiate. In the meantime, Begin reasoned, the civil rights of Israeli residents of the Golan Heights could only be protected by Israel’s liberal legal code. So he passed the Golan Heights Law that applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights.

In the intervening years, successive rounds of negotiations between Israel and Syria demonstrated that Begin was telling the truth. Applying Israeli law to the Golan Heights to facilitate the rule of law did not prevent Israel from negotiating possible territorial compromises in exchange for peace.

By the same token, today the half-million Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria are treated as second class citizens. They are subjected to military rule predicated on Jordanian law.

Hoping to conclude a peace agreement with the PLO, successive governments have neglected the civil rights of these citizens. Now that Abbas announced the abrogation of the peace deals the PLO signed with Israel, this position is impossible to justify.

As Begin did in 1981, the government should apply Israeli law to Area C of Judea and Samaria.

Area C includes all the Israeli communities and all of the military installations Israel requires to defend itself from Palestinian and foreign Arab aggression.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump dared to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Unlike his predecessors, Trump will open the US Embassy in Jerusalem. But like his predecessors, Trump will not initiate a breach with the two-state formula.

As Rabin and Shimon Peres demonstrated in 1993, the US may follow Israel’s lead if it is convinced that Israel’s move is reasonable and adheres to the US’s interest in regional stability and peace.

By invoking Begin’s rationale for applying Israeli law to the Golan Heights, Netanyahu can make a credible case for why a similar move is required today in Judea and Samaria, as the smart PLO leader makes clear that he has no intention of making peace with Israel – or with the United States.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 

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