By now, everyone’s found someone to blame for the apparent failure of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In his testimony last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry laid the blame squarely at the feet of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu—specifically, on Netanyahu’s decision to go ahead with approving housing permits for new construction in East Jerusalem while simultaneously refusing to release additional Palestinian prisoners according to the negotiated schedule. “Poof,” Kerry told his former Senate colleagues, in a formulation that became instantly iconic. “That was sort of the moment. We find ourselves where we are.”
Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, made it clear that they hold Kerry personally responsible for the impasse in the Middle East, even as Kerry insisted talks might still proceed. “Recognize reality,” McCain chided Kerry. The Israelis, for their part, said they were “deeply disappointed” in Kerry’s remarks. As several Israeli officials have made clear in recent weeks, the view from Givat Ram is that the problem is Kerry himself—a man whose eyes, many believe, are too fixed on a Nobel Peace Prize to clearly see facts on the ground.
Interestingly, the Palestinians seem to have been reduced to mere bit players, with all the agency of a tetherball. It’s a fact made all the more curious when one remembers that it was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who brought this all to a head when he announced that he intended to resume the PA’s bid for international recognition by applying to a number of international conventions and organizations. Yet while Abbas surely wanted to stick it to the Israelis—and maybe to Kerry, too —the truth is that he’s got a much bigger problem much closer to home. Abbas is now in the ninth year of a four-year presidential term, and his greatest accomplishment as a political leader is simply that: longevity.
For Abbas, staying in power requires keeping his rivals at bay. In particular, there’s Mohamed Dahlan, the former Gaza-based Fatah strongman who’s been licking his wounds ever since Hamas routed his men from the Strip in 2007. At just 52, Dahlan is still young. For the past four years, he has been living in the United Arab Emirates; my sources in the region tell me he recently spent a month in Marrakesh with Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to Washington, who was in Morocco recovering from shoulder surgery.
The leaders in the Gulf states are more worried about Iran and its nuclear program than about the Israelis. Their objective, right now, is to find a Palestinian version of Egypt’s new strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—someone who can take on Hamas and other Islamist factions, block Iranian influence, and keep his nation united, stable, and, most importantly, quiet. So the plan some Arab leaders are pursuing, apparently, is to strengthen Dahlan to make another run at Hamas—encircled now by Israel and Sisi’s Egypt, and weakened without the Iranian support it previously counted on. After that, Dahlan will muscle Abbas out of the leadership in Ramallah.
Abbas and his supporters hear Dahlan’s footsteps, which is why Abbas has taken steps to cut Dahlan off at the knees. As the indomitable Khaled Abu Toameh has reported, Abbas’ countermeasures include confiscating cash transfers from the United Arab Emirates to Dahlan loyalists in the Gaza Strip and threatening to expel Dahlan loyalists from Fatah. It’s not all hard politics; there are soft moves, too. Abbas, Abu Toameh added, “spent $1 million on a ‘mass wedding’ of 300 Palestinians after learning that the event had been originally sponsored and financed by Dahlan.”
So just as everyone understands that some of Bibi’s moves on housing permits and prisoner releases have as much to do with ideology as with keeping his increasingly fractious Knesset coalition together, Abbas’ moves against Israel at the negotiating table should be seen in the context of his fight for political survival. If Abbas can get more prisoners released then he’s a hero for liberating the foot soldiers of the resistance; if he can’t, he won’t be blamed by his own people because the presumption is that the Americans and the Israelis are on the same side, even if they appear to be arguing. There’s nothing to be gained by making concessions to Jerusalem or Washington now, so why not push for further recognition at the United Nations when Kerry and the Americans won’t exact a price for it? But it’s also why Netanyahu’s insistence that Abbas should recognize Israel as a Jewish state can only sound absurd to the PA chief: “Sure,” Abbas must be reasoning, “that’s just what I want on my tombstone — the traitor who abandoned the Palestinian cause.” The Dahlan clan would dance on his grave for generations.
It’s not clear why Washington policy wonks ignore the intra-Arab context of Arab politics, but they’ve been doing it for generations now. A half-century ago, U.S. policymakers and scholars viewed Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser as the Arab nationalist par excellence, the man who’d finally make good on the promise of uniting the Arabs under one banner and restoring them to the greatness that years of European colonialism had cheated them of. In reality, Nasser simply used Arab nationalism as a convenient ideology to beat up on his regional rivals, like Iraq, Jordan, and most especially the oil-rich, U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia.
When the Arab spring uprisings began in the winter of 2010-11, regional experts hailed it as the outpouring of authentic democratic sentiment. Thanks to social media, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians and other Arabs were taking to the streets like it was Paris in May 1968, supposedly because they wanted just what we wanted—democracy, free markets and more social media. But when Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in June 2012 and was toppled a year later by General Sisi, the reality of Arab politics was laid bare for anyone who cared to notice: The Arab Spring was less about a public clamoring for democracy than a contest between powerful factions—in this case, an elite cadre of Islamists and an Arab military with vital economic interests to protect. Arab politics are not, and may never be, like American politics.
And yet, just because the Arabs do not enjoy the same political structure as Western liberal democracies—like the United States, or like Israel—doesn’t mean their politics aren’t real or serious. Arab politics, like ours, start at the local level. To imagine rather that the Palestinians’ primary concerns are the Israelis, or the U.S. State Department, does nothing but patronize them.
For all the criticism leveled at Kerry from his former colleagues on the Hill, the American press corps and Israeli cabinet officials, the reality is that he’s simply the latest embodiment of a longstanding habit of American foreign policy thinking. He’s hardly the first secretary of state to blame Israel for the lack of progress on the peace process; Jim Baker and Condoleezza Rice did it, too. The reason why the U.S. policy establishment continues to believe that leaning on Israel will lead to a successful resolution of the conflict is because American policymakers don’t take Arab politics seriously. The Palestinians can’t negotiate with Israel when they’re so busy fighting amongst themselves.