It is not going to be an easy conversation—and shouldn't be, given the inflammatory nature of recent speeches by President Abbas, aka Abu Mazen. He has used his platform to demonize the state of Israel and deny the Jewish people's historic connection to their ancient homeland, while asserting that the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution. For the Palestinians, he states, the right of return is holy, and no one can deny it. This from a Palestinian president who over several decades has moved from being the most flexible, reasonable, and compromise-oriented of the Palestinian leadership to being the exact opposite, both publicly and in private meetings—stubbornly uncompromising, using hard-nosed, all-or-nothing rhetoric. In the past, Abbas has spoken in favor of the two-state solution and even on occasion publicly defended his recognition of the state of Israel. No longer.
The new logo of his ruling Fatah party includes a rifle barrel and a Palestinian headscarf covering all of Israel. The Palestinian Authority ministry of information refers to Israel only as a racist, colonialist endeavor.
Perhaps Abbas is striking a posture of unalloyed militancy with one eye on upcoming elections and the shadow of Hamas at his back. No doubt he is affected by the way traditional Arab leadership has been supplanted by non-Arab powers, Turkey and Iran, both of which have turned against Israel. In any event, he has hardly been exhibiting the energy and dexterity of a leader committed to an independent Palestinian state living in peace and prosperity alongside Israel.
Instead of good-faith, constructive, private diplomacy to prepare the way for final negotiations with Israel, the Palestinian leadership launches international campaigns that do nothing to move the dialogue forward but rather move it backwards by incitement. In a January speech, Abbas did not mention compromise with Israel but focused on the return not so much of the relatively few surviving Palestinian refugees as of their millions of descendants to what is now Israel. He identified as people to follow a previous mufti of Jerusalem who allied himself with Nazi Germany and leaders of terrorist organizations that have killed Israeli citizens.
He has even attempted to portray the Jews as collaborators, noting in one interview, "I have more than 70 books in me that I haven't written about the connections between the Zionist movement and the Nazis before World War II." This is hardly preparing the Palestinian people for peace. The tactic of relentlessly criticizing Israel feeds the Palestinians' fantasy that someday they will succeed, and that eventually the world will force Israel to its knees.
For all of that, if Abbas can find his true voice, the Israelis will probably never find as amenable a partner for future negotiations. This was a man once brave enough to stand up against Arafat and tell him that the armed intifada was a dangerous mistake, and who actually stopped the second intifada in the West Bank. There remains the hope that at some point he will be able to speak to his own people about the parameters of a two-state solution using the lexicon of peace, and to engage in quiet and confidential discussions with the Israelis on territory and security.
As for the Israelis, newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry has the capacity to develop a relationship with Netanyahu based on his record of valuing mutual confidence and trust among the parties and his deep knowledge of the region. He understands the critical need to build a relationship with the Israeli people through Netanyahu, without which he cannot make progress anywhere. Netanyahu came to power after the initiatives by both Barak and Olmert had been rejected, first by Yasser Arafat and then by Abbas. The result was that Israeli leaders became much more cautious on peace efforts.