No sooner had Hillary Clinton announced the imminent resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations without preconditions, than the Palestinian leadership cold shouldered the US secretary of state. An emergency meeting of the PLO executive committee (which controls the Palestinian Authority), chaired by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to return to the negotiating table but threatened to pull out of the talks if Israel didn't extend the freeze on all settlement activities. "Should the Israeli government issue new tenders on September 26, we will not be able to continue with talks," chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters.
But the story doesn't end here. While the English-language announcement of the PLO's decision sets "the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel" as the outcome of the negotiations, the Arabic-language version makes no mention of the two-state solution. Instead it notes the Palestinian readiness to resume the final-status talks, adding a few new preconditions, notably the rejection of Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem.
And just there, no doubt, lies the heart of the problem.
For while the PLO leadership, since the launch of the Oslo "peace" process in 1993, has been singing the praises of the two-state solution whenever addressing Israeli or Western audiences, it has consistently denigrated the idea to its own constituents, depicting the process as a transient arrangement required by the needs of the moment that would inexorably lead to the long-cherished goal of Israel's demise.
In this respect there has been no fundamental distinction between Yasser Arafat and Abbas (and, for that matter, between Hamas and the PLO). For all their admittedly sharp differences in personality and political style, the two are warp and woof of the same dogmatic PLO fabric: Neither of them accepts Israel's right to exist; both are committed to its eventual destruction.
IN ONE way, indeed, Abbas is more extreme than many of his peers. While they revert to standard talk of Israel's illegitimacy, he devoted years of his life to giving ideological firepower to the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish indictment. In a doctoral dissertation written at a Soviet university, an expanded version of which was subsequently published in book form, Abbas endeavored to prove the existence of a close ideological and political association between Zionism and Nazism. Among other things, he argued that fewer than a million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust, and that the Zionist movement was a partner to their slaughter.
In the wake of the failed Camp David summit of July 2000 and the launch of Arafat's war of terror two months later, Abbas went to great lengths to explain why the "right of return" – the standard Arab euphemism for Israel's destruction through demographic subversion – was a nonnegotiable prerequisite for any settlement. Two years later, he described the Oslo process as "the biggest mistake Israel has ever made," enabling the PLO to get worldwide acceptance and respectability while clinging to its own aims.
Shortly after Arafat's death in November 2004, Abbas publicly swore to "follow in the path of the late leader Yasser Arafat and... work toward fulfilling his dream... We promise you that our hearts will not rest until the right of return for our people is achieved and the tragedy of the refugees is ended."
Abbas made good his pledge. In a televised speech on May 15, 2005, he described the establishment of Israel as an unprecedented historic injustice and vowed never to accept it.
Two-and-a-half years later, at a US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, he rejected prime minister Ehud Olmert's proposal of a Palestinian state in 97 percent of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip, and categorically dismissed the request to recognize Israel as a Jewish state alongside the would-be Palestinian state, insisting instead on full implementation of the "right of return."
He was equally recalcitrant when the demand was raised (in April 2009) by newly-elected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "A Jewish state, what is that supposed to mean?" Abbas asked in a speech in Ramallah. "You can call yourselves as you like, but I don't accept it and I say so publicly."
When in June 2009 Netanyahu broke with longstanding Likud precept by publicly accepting a twostate solution and agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state, provided the PA leadership responded in kind and recognized Israel's Jewish nature, Erekat warned that the prime minister "will have to wait 1,000 years before he finds one Palestinian who will go along with him."
Fatah, the PLO's largest constituent organization and Abbas's alma mater, went a step further. At its sixth general congress, convened in Bethlehem last August, the delegates reaffirmed their long-standing commitment to "armed struggle" as "a strategy, not a tactic... This struggle will not stop until the Zionist entity is eliminated and Palestine is liberated."
And so it goes. Precisely 10 years after Arafat was dragged kicking and screaming to the American-convened peace summit in Camp David, only to reject Ehud Barak's virtual cession of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the nascent Palestinian state and to launch an unprecedented war of terror, his erstwhile successor is being dragged to the negotiating table, which he would rather continue to shun after a year-and- a-half absence.
Not because of the unconstitutionality of any agreement he might sign (owing to the expiry of his presidency in January 2009), or his inability to deliver anything that is not to Hamas's liking, but because, like Arafat and the rest of the PLO leadership, as far as Israel's existence is concerned, Abbas would not take a yes for an answer.
The writer is professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London, editor of Middle East Quarterly and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.