When I interviewed Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea for my article on Benjamin Netanyahu’s relative good fortune as prime minister, Barnea told me that the real “lucky” one in Mideast politics is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although perceived as weak and ineffectual by both the United States and Israel, Abbas is, as Barnea put it, “quite happy with the status quo. The West Bank standard of living is improving, law and order is improving. He’s a head of state with none of the responsibilities of a head of state.” Indeed, Abbas told The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl in May that Fatah is basically waiting for a U.S.-brokered peace deal to arrive before taking any initiative of his own toward one: “I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,” Abbas said. “Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality.… The people are living a normal life.”
Although Fatah’s sixth general assembly, which concluded last week in Bethlehem, produced little more than conspiracy theories about how Yasser Arafat died (guess who killed him?), pro forma denunciations of Israel, and a refusal to recognize the country as a “Jewish state” (something Netanyahu demands before moving forward on a peace deal himself), there is yet another indication that Abbas and company are content to inhabit a wait-and-see mode. The reason is that, fundamentally, they agree with Netayanhu’s “economic peace” plan, whereby Israel lessens strictures on enterprise and investment in the Palestinian territory, while not committing itself to any political rapprochement with Palestinians. Consider this interview Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad gave to Haaretz for today’s edition, in which he sounds almost conciliatory on the Jewish identity question: “The character of Israel, as the total character that Israel would like to have, is Israel’s own choice. It characterizes itself in the way that it wishes to characterize itself. Why raise it now?” He also sounds like a second for Netanyahu when he says: “I realized that security was the glue between a thriving economy and proper government and achieving liberty for the Palestinian people.”
So Abbas has it both ways: he gets to watch with delight as the Obama administration puts the screws to Israel while Israel continues to facilitate the development of Abbas’s home turf. Who wouldn’t like that status quo?