Mahmoud Abbas’s resonant statement at the weekend, calling the Holocaust “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era”, is extremely welcome. Although its publication on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day looks like political calculation, the American rabbi Marc Schneier, to whom Mr Abbas unburdened himself during a meeting in Ramallah last week, maintains it was “very heartfelt, very genuine”.
For decades, both sides in the unending Israel-Palestine conflict have found justification in their own unique sufferings for the pain they inflict on the other. Israel’s creation of a garrison state and its illegal occupation of the West Bank, which has now lasted nearly half a century, is excused by the necessity of preventing another genocide; while the recourse of Palestinians to violence against Israeli civilians is justified by Israel’s bloody seizure of the Palestinian lands. If progress is ever to be made towards ending the conflict, this dialogue of the deaf has to stop. Mr Abbas’s gesture of conciliation – his recognition of the historical nightmare which the Jews so recently left behind – is as rare as it is welcome.
His timing, however, was curious. Although the US deadline for progress on the peace talks expires tomorrow, events of the past week indicate that they are already dead: Mr Abbas’s agreement with Hamas to work towards a unity government was quickly greeted by the Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu as reason to call the whole thing off. “Does he want peace with Hamas, or peace with Israel?” he asked. “You can have one but not the other.”
The alacrity and finality of this put-down by Mr Netanyahu was a reminder of the relative strengths of the two sides in this ever-unequal struggle. Israel’s economy is booming; Palestine’s is on life support; the US’s backing for Israel is as strong as ever while Hamas has been severely damaged by the witch-hunt against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Mr Abbas’s own democratic credentials are threadbare.
Barack Obama recently told Mr Netanyahu that the status quo is “unsustainable”. “There comes a point,” he said, “when you can’t manage this any more … Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank?” To which the candid answer by Israel would be “Yes”: after 46 years and the relentless march of Israeli settlements, that is precisely what Israel can resign itself to. That is why Mr Netanyahu felt free to snap Mr Abbas’s olive branch and throw it in his face. “Instead of issuing statements designed to placate global public opinion,” he said, “[Mr Abbas] needs to choose between the alliance with Hamas … and a true peace with Israel.”
What a golden opportunity for generosity Mr Netanyahu missed. There are plenty of men and women of goodwill on both sides. With Hamas politically weakened, and Mr Abbas saying the previously unsayable, an Israeli leader of a higher calibre could have made something of the Fatah’s leader’s initiative. Instead Mr Netanyahu ground it under his foot.
Even this close to the deadline, all may not be lost. Mr Netanyahu said he appreciated John Kerry’s “unbelievable efforts” to bring the two sides together. From the EU’s foreign affairs office, Baroness Ashton expressed her extreme concern at recent developments and called upon both sides to “remain committed to the two-state solution”. The probable and depressing outcome of these talks is another failure, but there remains a slim window of opportunity to salvage them. One more heave please, Mr Kerry.