Opinion

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is the best chance for Middle East peace

PA president's moderate stance and acquiescence to NATO forces may pave the way for dialogue and progress

In an interview in The New York Times published Sunday, Feb. 2, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took an unprecedented step. Any future Palestinian state, he said, could be patrolled “indefinitely” by an international force of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) peacekeepers who would be stationed “wherever they want.”

Abbas’ statement is the most resounding proof of something that has been clear for a while now. Namely, Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), represents the best chance so far — and possibly the best chance ever, given the growing skepticism with which both sides view the two-state solution — to reach a lasting peace.

Abbas’ commitment to peace, or at least to a far more moderate form of Palestinian nationalism than was being practiced by those around him, should be beyond question. As far back as 1977, he was one of the few members of the Palestinian resistance calling for talks with the Israelis.

During his predecessor Yasser Arafat’s reign, Abbas frequently came into conflict with the Palestinian leader over Arafat’s support for terrorism. As president and prime minister, Abbas has continued to crack down on the various violent groups still in the West Bank.

None of this is to say Abbas or the PA is perfect. Abbas first extended, then simply ignored term limits. The PA is corrupt and inefficient.

All of this comes to say: When Abbas offers an olive branch, it should be taken at face value. He has demonstrated that he wants to see the creation of a Palestinian state more than the destruction of the Israeli one.

And his proposal to keep NATO forces in a Palestinian state is just that — an olive branch. Not only did he agree to allow Israeli troops and settlements to remain in the West Bank for five years after the creation of a state — two years more than the three he had previously asked for — but by allowing NATO forces to remain in the state, he has presented the most feasible chance at a legitimately demilitarized Palestinian state.

Sure, NATO’s record in war zones is not stellar. The point here, though, is that Israel and the West Bank are not at war; the very point of an international force would be to prevent the outbreak of violence.

There’s more in Abbas’ proposal that should give observers hope that the state would be a big improvement over Gaza, which quickly spiraled into violence. First, Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, is no Hamas, and indeed, their intense rivalry should incentivize Fatah to act as a foil to Hamas to demonstrate its worth to international investors.

Second, the West Bank’s relative prosperity means more Palestinians will be able to seek gainful unemployment, rather than get sucked into the orbit of violent fundamentalists.

Third and perhaps most importantly, Abbas has promised that a Palestinian state would have no army, only a police force. The absence of a serious armed threat to Israel should give Israeli leadership some reassurance.

There’s still a long way to go. The exact boundaries of both states still need to be agreed upon. The issue of refugees within and outside of Israel’s borders needs to be settled. What exactly should be done with Gaza remains a massive challenge. There needs to be some sense of trust between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas. So far, that trust has been notably absent.

Without huge steps on both sides — for Abbas, that means a public statement saying he will recognize Israel’s right to exist; for Netanyahu, a statement supporting Abbas’ NATO plan — the peace process will fall apart yet again, and perhaps for the final time, the chance at peace will be lost.

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.