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After fifty years of occupation, what's next: an open letter to President Mahmoud Abbas

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 23 June 2017

Dear President Abbas,

Last week I sent an open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, criticizing him in the strongest terms for pursuing policies that prolong the occupation of the West Bank rather than searching for ways to end it by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution. I must hasten to say, however, that you, along with Hamas' leaders, have contributed your own share to the continuation of the occupation that has deepened the plight of the Palestinian people.

I have always and continue to oppose the occupation, and place the blame largely on right-wing Israeli governments for maintaining it under the pretext of national security concerns. Given that Israel is by far the stronger party, it could have taken significant steps toward peace while tightly guarding its national security. That said, tk


The fact that much of the international community supports your cause is not enough. Your current policies are playing into the hands of the extremely powerful right-wing Israeli constituency, which effectively uses your actions and public narratives to justify their opposition to ending the occupation. Thus, you are weakening the hands of the Israeli political left and center, who are key to negotiating a peace agreement and ending the occupation, as only they can change the public sentiment in favor of a two-state solution, provided you earn their support and trust.

To that end, you need to develop a new strategy that you or your successor must pursue to change the dynamic of the conflict for the better, by developing a non-confrontational policy, engaging in constructive public narratives, ending all forms of incitement, pursuing political reconciliation with Hamas, reining in corruption, focusing on public development projects, and introducing an unbiased curriculum in schools. Finally, do not instinctively reject the Israelis' complaints and concerns about the Palestinians' behavior; instead, listen carefully and adopt the strategy that will disabuse a growing number of Israelis of their pre-conceived notions about what the Palestinians' true intent is. Do not miss yet another opportunity, because the longer the conflict and the occupation continue, the less favorable outcome you will be compelled to accept.

Although the PLO adopted in 1993 the Oslo Accords-a non-violent approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-violence in various degrees against the Israelis remained a major factor that inhibited the emergence of a powerful Israeli political party (or combination of parties) to challenge the right-wing constituency on the occupation. The second Intifada in 2000 that resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 Israelis left an indelible mark on just about every Israeli and deepened their distrust of the Palestinians, which has not been alleviated to this day.

The continuing sporadic but persistent violence, the three Hamas-instigated wars against Israel and its continued advocacy of Israel's destruction, and the praising of martyrdom provide constant concerns about the Palestinians' ultimate intentions. Due to those concerns, nearly half of the Israeli population believes that the Palestinians are nowhere near accepting Israel's right to exist as a sovereign nation-a belief that right-wing parties use effectively to make a convincing argument against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

What you have failed to do, Mr. Abbas, is engage in a constructive public narrative that reiterates time and again the reality of Israel's existence, and that no amount of violence against Israel will bring the country to heel. In fact, the opposite is true. The more persistent the violence is, the further away you are from ending the occupation, because successive right-wing Israeli governments have masterfully linked the continuing occupation to preserving Israel's national security.

To change this discourse, you must take all the necessary steps to end any form of incitement. The violent 2015 uprising (the so-called "Knife Intifada") was fueled in part by incitement via social media campaigns-propelled by Hamas, Islamist groups, and frustrated individuals-that glorified either those who committed violent crimes or those "martyred" in the cause of Palestinian resistance. Crude cartoons shared on Facebook underscored the ease in which an innocent Palestinian youth could become a martyr, with captions such as "This is not difficult. To the closest kitchen, and go in the name of God."


During the uprising in 2015, you voiced full support for the so-called martyrs, stating that "We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem." It is tragic that you and many other Palestinian officials defend the use of "martyrdom" language when killing innocent Israeli civilians, many of whom want to end the occupation. In an interview on Israeli television Channel 2 in April 2016, however, you changed your tone when you said, "In one school, we found 70 boys and girls who were carrying knives. We took the knives and spoke to them and said: 'This is a mistake. We do not want you to kill and be killed…'"

But then, in a sign of official endorsement, the village of Surda-Abu Qash in early 2016 named a park after Muhannad Halabi, a 19-year who was killed by Israeli police following a stabbing attack against Israeli civilians. Your public support of such occurrences only encourages more violence. It's time for you to be honest with your own public by ending your damaging narrative. The young and impressionable would rather embrace the 'glory' of martyrdom than listen to your half-hearted, occasional pleas to abandon violence. Meanwhile, you are undermining your position in the eyes of Israelis as you are portraying yourself as a double-talker and a weak leader who is not in control.

It is true that Hamas has and continues to be a major obstacle to peace and a staunch rival to your authority. Given, however, that Hamas must be an integral part of any peace accord with Israel, you should speak publicly and repeatedly about the need for Palestinian political cohesiveness as a prerequisite to reaching a peace agreement with Israel. Yet, your personal rivalry and ego always stands in the away.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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