Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Kenneth Levin, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a Princeton-trained historian, and a commentator on Israeli politics. He is the author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege.
FP: Kenneth Levin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about the Palestinian Authority’s efforts of seeking recognition as an independent state via the UN and on a nation by nation basis.
The PA has pursued United Nations Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements, is threatening to go now to the General Assembly with an anti-settlement resolution, and is threatening as well to seek recognition from the UN of Palestinian statehood along the pre-1967 cease-fire lines. It has also sought and received such recognition from various nations around the world, particularly in South America but elsewhere as well.
What is your understanding of this PA strategy?
Levin: Thanks Jamie.
It has always been the goal of the Palestinian leadership to gain recognition, and territory, without acknowledging Israel’s right to exist as the national homeland of the Jewish people and without giving up Palestinian pursuit of additional claims against Israel; its goal, ultimately, is Israel’s dissolution.
At the time of the initiation of the Oslo accords, on the evening of the famous signing and handshake on the White House lawn in September, 1993, Yasir Arafat appeared on Jordanian television and explained to his constituency and his wider Arab audience that they should understand Oslo as the first phase of his 1974 plan. In 1974, he had elaborated a plan according to which the Palestinians would take any land they could acquire by negotiations and use that land as a base from which they would pursue Israel’s annihilation. Arafat repeated this understanding of Oslo many times thereafter.
When Arafat, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton held their talks at Camp David in 2000, Arafat rejected all the concessions offered by Barak and Clinton and refused to put forward counter-proposals. He was unwilling to agree to any accord, whatever the territorial and other concessions made by Israel, because an "end-of-conflict" agreement was demanded from him in return and he was not interested in ending the conflict and foregoing future, additional Palestinian demands.
Around the same time, Arafat spoke of declaring a state unilaterally, as a way, again, of establishing "Palestine" without signing away future claims against Israel. President Clinton made clear that the U.S. would not support such a unilateral move and, not least because of U.S. pressure, European states conveyed the same message.
When, after Camp David, Arafat launched his terror war against Israel, he did so once more with the intention of establishing a de facto state without signing a final peace accord. He had some hope of seizing additional territory via his terror campaign, but he also expressed the hope that the carnage he triggered, particularly if it led to an incident which entailed significant loss of civilian lives on the Palestinian side, would lead to international intervention and the introduction of an international force in the territories to "protect" the Palestinians. Such a force would inevitably provide a shield behind which Arafat could continue to pursue his terror attacks, would severely compromise Israel’s ability to respond to the terror, and would in effect give Arafat his de facto state without his having signed a final status agreement.
PA president Mahmoud Abbas, a longtime associate of Arafat and member of the Fatah and PLO leadership, has largely followed Arafat’s course. He has not actively pursued a terror campaign, and was critical of the terror war launched by Arafat, but he made clear at the time, and in statements since then, that his opposition to the manner in which Arafat used terror was purely tactical; he felt it did not serve to advance the Palestinians’ ultimate goals. Abbas has also made clear that those goals, for him, are the same as for Arafat.
FP: What has Abbas’ record been of dealing with Israel?
Levin: Abbas has refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish state, the expression of that right of national self-determination accorded other peoples, even though the original UN resolution on the division of Mandate Palestine west of the Jordan called for establishment of a Jewish and an Arab state. He has refused to consider any compromise regarding Palestinian insistence on a so-called "right of return," the right of Palestinians to settle en masse inside whatever remains of Israel rather than have Palestinians settle in the new state created for them - a swamping of Israel that would, in effect, entail the dissolution of the state. He has given no indication of any willingness to agree to a final status accord.
Some have argued that Abbas would be inclined to be more forthcoming than Arafat but is inhibited by his political weakness, by the fact that his Fatah cadres and the wider Palestinian public are unprepared for reconciliation with Israel and for any compromise of demands that serve the goal of Israel’s ultimate destruction. But Abbas has followed Arafat in using the mosques, media and schools under his control to militate against any peaceful resolution of the conflict. The message conveyed by all three is that Jews have no historical connection to any part of Palestine, that they are mere usurpers whose presence must be expunged, and that it is the duty of every Palestinian to pursue that goal. In addition, Abbas has personally praised terrorists who have killed Israelis as the ideal that all Palestinians should strive to emulate and has explicitly endorsed efforts to delegitimize Israel and its right to exist within any borders.
FP: Some documents have recently surfaced that have revealed some information about PA “concessions” in 2008. Tell us about them.
Levin: Media reports some weeks ago gave attention to newly revealed documents that showed supposed "concessions" by the PA in negotiations in 2008 with the Olmert administration. But they do not change the reality I have discussed. The contents of the documents are actually consistent with longstanding, widely known statements by PA leaders hinting at a willingness to entertain some limited land swaps and offering virtually no concessions on the "right of return." In addition, while the PA under Abbas has at times spoken of accepting such territorial positions, it has never actually signed off on any agreement with Israel. Arafat’s negotiators, too, at times made "conciliatory" sounds, and poured over maps as though seriously contemplating reaching compromises, but Arafat ultimately always balked and demanded more. In some instances, the conciliatory feints were primarily for Israeli consumption; in others they were aimed more at placating the Americans. (Secretary of State Rice was present at some of the discussions documented in the recently released materials). There is no reason to believe that these 2008 talks represented anything different from those earlier kabuki dances.
In addition, the 2008 talks took place against a background of increasing and incessant rocket and mortar attacks against Israel from Gaza, and it was clear that Israel would soon have to respond to this assault with an incursion into Gaza aimed at ending it. Abbas was very much interested in Israel’s destroying Hamas in Gaza and handing Gaza over to the PA. A further motive for hinting at possible compromises, at least on territorial issues, may well have been a wish to have Israel believe it had a "partner" in the PA and therefore be more willing to expend Israeli lives to install the PA in Gaza rather than engaging in a more limited operation to try and end Gazan rocket fire and other terror attacks.
Also noteworthy was the nature of Abbas’s outrage over the leaking of the documents. He not only argued that some claims of PA concessions were exaggerated, but tried to disown even the more modest hints at compromise actually contained in the documents. In fact, even though there have been suggestions of his entertaining such moves in the past, Abbas does not want to be seen by the Palestinian public as genuinely considering any compromises. This is consistent with his continuing the indoctrination of Palestinians, including Palestinian children, against accepting anything short of tactical steps that do not impinge on the ultimate objective of Israel’s destruction and its replacement by a Palestinian Muslim state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
In fact, Abbas clearly believes he’s in a much better position than was Arafat to realize Arafat’s dream of establishing a state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza and doing so without signing an agreement that would preclude the ongoing pursuit of Israel’s demise; that is, in taking a major step towards completing the Plan of Phases. His belief is grounded largely in his perception of President Obama as an ally in this program.
FP: Abbas believes that Obama is going help him achieve his goals right?
Levin: As incisively conveyed by the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl following a May, 2009, interview with Abbas shortly before the PA leader’s first meeting with Obama, Abbas was convinced that there was nothing he needed to do but to wait until the President delivered the Israelis for him. Obama had already made a total Israeli settlement freeze - something to which no Israeli government had ever agreed and which had never been demanded by the Palestinians as a condition for earlier talks - the central issue in his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He had done so while asking nothing of the Palestinians: nothing vis-a-vis ending incitement and preparing his population for reconciliation with Israel; nothing regarding recognizing Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, even as both Abbas and Obama expected Israel to recognize, and help in establishing, a nation-state for the Palestinians; nothing on ending the demand for a "right of return" aimed at destroying Israel demographically. Abbas had good reason to believe he need do nothing.
Some have suggested that Obama’s stance on settlements forced Abbas to balk at negotiations, since he could hardly be asking for less than the American president. But even after Netanyahu had agreed to a ten month freeze on building, Abbas waited until shortly before the end of the freeze before agreeing to negotiations, and then made an extension of the freeze a condition for his continuing negotiations. Rather than being forced to end talks by Obama’s heavy-handed pressure on the Israelis, Obama’s stance was a convenient excuse for Abbas pursuing his long-defined objective of avoiding all negotiated concessions that might impinge on future demands.
That objective is the motivation as well for Abbas’s seeking recognition of Palestinian demands in other forums: pushing for a UN Security Council condemnation of all "settlement" activity; likely seeking the same next fall in the General Assembly and perhaps seeking as well recognition of a Palestinian state demarcated by the 1967 cease-fire lines; requesting and obtaining from various nations such recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines. All these steps reflect again pursuing Arafat’s policy of gaining a state in the territories without conceding future claims against Israel; that is, without foreswearing future phases in the Plan of Phases.
FP: So what do we make of all of this?
Levin: That Abbas’s aggressiveness and success in these other forums have far exceeded Arafat’s achievements once more owes much to President Obama. While the U.S. vetoed the Security Council resolution on settlements, it did so while vigorously condemning settlement activity in a way no other President except Jimmy Carter had - falling short of calling them "illegal" but coming closer to doing so than any president except Carter (the only one who has so characterized settlements) - and continuing to present settlements as the central issue in the conflict.
In addition, that nations such as France and Britain voted for the Security Council resolution, and that many nations in South America and elsewhere have recognized "Palestine" with territories marked by the 1967 armistice lines, reflect the failure of the Obama administration to replicate President Clinton’s strong stance against such moves and firm insistence that the U.S. would support only resolution of the conflict through bilateral negotiations.
That South American nations have led the way in signing on to the Palestinian program may also reflect the Obama administration’s weak policies in South and Central America, the rise of Venezuela’s strongman dictator Hugo Chavez as the "strong horse" in the region, Obama’s seeking to ingratiate himself with, rather than challenge, Chavez and the South and Central American leaders allied with him, and Obama’s undercutting of democratic allies in the region such as Columbia and Honduras. To be sure, the Obama administration has made virtually no effort to dissuade South and Central American nations from recognizing "Palestine." It has not forcefully pointed out that such recognition undermines the emphasis on bilateral negotiations as the key to an enduring agreement, and has not even put its full weight behind the centrality of bilateral negotiations. In contrast, Chavez and his backers, like their Iranian allies, have been strong advocates of all anti-Israel gestures.
There is little evidence of anything inhibiting Abbas’s strategy from winning additional victories, and even less evidence of the Obama administration doing anything to counter that strategy. On the contrary, even in the midst of all the recent upheaval in the Arab world, with the possible emergence of Islamist forces gaining control of vast new territories and presenting, in conjunction with Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, a much amplified threat to Israel, the Obama administration continues to increase the pressure on Israel for territorial and other concessions in the service of "peace."
There is also little evidence that any facts on the ground, any reality, can shift Obama from his rigid, ideologically-driven hostility to Israel. The main unanswered question is whether Israel is prepared to play Czechoslovakia to Obama’s Neville Chamberlain.