Abbas Is Haunted by a 40-Year-Old Peace Plan

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas warned the Palestinian Liberation Organization national council that the Palestinian cause was in dire straits. “The enemy plans to have a mini-state in Gaza and autonomy in the West Bank.”

Abbas believes the "enemy" (a term encompassing Israel, Hamas and the Trump Administration) is plotting to create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza. This he has sworn to resist. “No [Palestinian] state will be established in Gaza, no [Palestinian] state will be established without Gaza, and no state will be established with temporary borders,” he told the PLO council.

Abbas's fear is that the new U.S. plan for Mideast peace -- what Donald Trump has called the Deal of the Century -- is not far from a plan hatched 40 years ago at the Camp David peace talks. But while it was rejected then, it's not so fanciful now.

At Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin presented an autonomy plan for the Palestinians -- a framework for quasi-independence in which the Arabs of the occupied territories (“liberated” he would have called them) would be free to elect their own leaders and run their own internal affairs. Israel would remain in charge of overall security and permit Jewish settlement to flourish. The Arab world, opposed to the Camp David process, rejected it; the United Nations Assembly, which stood by the Arab League, seconded the motion. That emboldened the PLO, whose declared goal at the time was the destruction of Israel.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was brokering the peace process, was not a Begin fan. He made it clear that “autonomy” didn’t solve the key problem, which was Palestinian self-determination. Egypt’s President Sadat shrugged off the Palestinian issue and concluded a bi-lateral peace with Israel that still survives. The plan sunk under its own weight.

In 1994, Israel and the PLO concluded the Oslo Accords, which envisioned two independent states. That, too, has proved a non-starter. Oslo was all handshakes and no real decisions. It soon became clear that the distance between the two sides was unbridgeable.

While futile negotiations continued, the PLO established a quasi- government in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in Ramallah. In 2005, Israel decided that occupying Gaza was too much of a burden. It evacuated Jewish settlers and turned it over to the Palestinians. Terror attacks followed, as did elections. In 2006, Hamas won a plurality, sparking a civil war. The PLO was expelled from Gaza.

Ideologically Hamas is in the same place the PLO was 40 years ago -- at war with Israel whose existence it rejects. But in reality, there is a lot of contact between Jerusalem and Gaza, most of it brokered by Egypt. The idea of a Gaza-based state with autonomy for the West Bank is no longer so ludicrous.

Gaza is small but, if Egypt were to cede it land in northern Sinai (in return for Israeli territory in the Negev) it would be large enough to accommodate its current residents and as well as Palestinian refugees from elsewhere. Gaza is poor but it has the human resources and Mediterranean locale to become, as one of its leaders, Yahya Sinwar recently said, “another Singapore or Dubai.” Gaza is currently ruled by violent anti-Zionist fanatics, but not so long ago President Abbas's PLO could be fairly described that way.

And times have changed. Israel is no longer an isolated pariah in the Middle East. The same week that Abbas addressed the PLO national council, Bibi Netanyahu was on a visit to Oman, where the Sultan greeted him warmly and publicly declared the time right to accept the Jewish state as a legitimate neighbor. No mention of the Palestinians. In nearby Abu Dhabi, the Israeli winner of an international judo tournament was serenaded with the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, as he took the podium. Once, solidarity with Palestine would have prevented this.

A demilitarized Gaza-based Palestinian state could provide a solution to one of the world’s most intractable problems. It could offer the Arabs of the West Bank self-determination. Or, if they prefer, Jerusalem could allow them limited self-government. That is pretty much what Begin’s autonomy plan was all about.

The U.S. hasn't revealed any details yet about the plan that Mideast envoy Jared Kushner will presumably propose; but Abbas suspects this is the direction of travel. And while Israel has not spoken about Gaza as an independent state, it's willingness to negotiate with Hamas, through Egypt and Qatar, looks like a step in that direction.

It may not be likely that the scenario Abbas dreads will come to pass. But it also isn’t impossible. In today’s Middle East, there are no permanent enemies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.