Obviously a lot happening today, but don't have time to comment at great length because the Elliott School is hosting Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jersualem, in about 45 minutes. Since there have been protests over at least some of his previous appearances in the U.S., it may be an exciting morning on E Street. But since I've been asked to comment about Mahmoud Abbas saying that he won't seek re-election, here's a super-quick take:
I don't have much to add to what I wrote last week, before people started paying attention: if he's serious, then it isn't necessarily a disaster. It could shake up a failing process on autopilot, it could offer the chance to finally renew Palestinian leadership, and it could offer a way for the Gaza-West Bank, Fatah-Hamas standoff to be defused. Nothing has changed in the last week to make me change my mind on those basic points.
Most of the Palestinian and Arab commentary I've seen since his announcement falls into three basic trends: the first thinks he's bluffing, attempting to leverage his weakness into pressure on the U.S. and Israel; the second thinks it's irrelevant, because the elections will not actually be held in January; and the third is cheering his departure, and hoping that it will lead to a collective admission that the PA's strategy has failed. The three perspectives are obviously not mutually exclusive. When I asked leading Palestinian academic Salim Tamari yesterday about the impact it would have on the peace process, he just looked at me quizically and said "what peace process?"
There's been a collective moment of clarity over the last week about the disastrous course of the attempt to get to serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Hillary Clinton's comments about the Israeli "unprecedented" positions and the prospect of starting talks without a settlement freeze have thrown people into paroxysms of premature postmortems. I don't think her comments actually changed very much -- the dynamic was bad before she came to the region, it's still bad. At least now maybe the shock of this sudden view of the abyss will concentrate people's minds and get them to try something new.
This all gets back to the basic point I've been harping on for months (for instance in the CAP report I co-authored with Brian Katulis in the early summer): the administration has lacked a viable strategy for, or an adequate appreciation of, intra-Palestinian politics and the implications of the deep structural weakness of the Palestinian Authority. Now, perhaps, they'll have to get it. There's no viable path forward which doesn't include alleviating the blockade of Gaza and reunifying it politically with the West Bank, and no serious prospect that the institutions of the Palestinian Authority can be built up along Salam Fayyad's model without also dealing seriously with the political horizon of peace talks aimed at rapidly achieving a two state solution. The settlement freeze demand, which is being blamed wrongly for the current problems, was not a luxury -- it was essential for the Palestinian political track. And now that track needs a serious American re-think.