Getting people interested in Palestinian politics is a hard sell, observed Grant Rumley, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. In the shadow of other current Middle East crises, he said, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is “off the radar.”
“Given everything else going on in the region,” according to Rumley, “Palestinian politics have been sidelined.”
Still, Rumley spends a lot of time thinking and writing about Palestinian policy formation and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and was in Pittsburgh last week to address local supporters of AIPAC on the current state of the peace process.
While the AIPAC talk was not open to the news media, Rumley made himself available to The Chronicle for an interview prior to his address on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
Born in Pittsburgh to Irish and Italian Catholic parents, Rumley grew up in Detroit and developed a keen interest in the Middle East while studying international relations at Michigan State University. He earned a master’s degree in Islamic and Middle East studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he speaks Arabic.
He is slated to be a panelist at the upcoming AIPAC policy conference in the capital next month.
In contrast to the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the U.S./Palestinian relationship “is not well-documented,” Rumley noted, and the relationship is riddled with complexities that stem from a keen misunderstanding of Palestinian politics by the Obama administration.
After seven years, the Obama administration has become “frustrated by its inability to move Abbas toward the concessions necessary for a two-state solution,” he said.
From his first day in office, President Barack Obama was “bang on committed to making progress in the peace process,” Rumley explained, and [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was one of the first foreign leaders Obama telephoned on that day.
“Fast forward five years, and he can’t get Abbas to move,” Rumley said. “This burns the Obama administration. As far as I can tell, Obama and Abbas haven’t spoken since 2014. That shows the depth of misunderstanding that Obama had about Palestinian politics.”
That misunderstanding included a false confidence that if the Obama administration could just get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move closer to the parameters that President Bill Clinton had advanced in the Camp David Accords, Abbas would sign on as well.
That reasoning was “flawed,” Rumley said, as Abbas is unable to sign onto a peace agreement in the wake of his loss of power to Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006.
The current state of affairs between the Palestinians and the Israelis — in light of a stalled peace process and rampant Palestinian terrorism — is “complicated,” Rumley said. And while the wave of murderous Palestinian attacks that began in October does not rise to the level of a third intifada, it does present a crisis that is being further compounded by moral equivocation from the international community, including the United States.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statements to the U.N. Security Council last week — that it is “human nature to react to occupation” and that Palestinian violence is the result of frustration — are “unacceptable,” Rumley said. “They are way outside the pale in my opinion.”
Rumley pointed to recent remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry, linking Palestinian terror attacks to settlement construction, as similarly inappropriate.
But the recent wave of Palestinian attacks on innocent civilians is not an intifada, he said, because it is not orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership, unlike the Second Intifada that was planned by Yasser Arafat.
“Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have not orchestrated this one or coordinated it or carried it out,” he explained, although Hamas nonetheless calls it an intifada “because that is what they want.”
While Abbas may have members of the Palestinian Authority inciting the violence, Rumley said, the leaders are not planning it; and because the violence is being carried out by lone wolfs, it is difficult to determine how to get it to stop.
“There is no answer to the question of how long this goes on,” Rumley said. “This is definitely a bleak time.”
Going forward, Rumley sees no prospect of peace any time soon.
“On the Israeli side, the status quo will persist,” Rumley predicted. “Neither Netanyahu nor any Israeli leader will have the incentive to make a big shift.”
As for a post-Abbas Palestinian Authority, Rumley is convinced that the 80-year-old leader now entering the 12th year of a four-year term intends to hold onto his position until he dies.
“He turned an elected position into something closer to the Vatican,” Rumley said.
Abbas, he said, “is all about self-preservation. He is more focused on preserving his power than trying to make things better for his people.”
In order to get a push toward renewed peace talks, it will be necessary to “get a change of scenery from the top,” he said.
“You have to have a Palestinian leader, democratically elected, who has a public mandate and is committed to peace through negotiations and nonviolence and who will shun terror. I don’t know how that figure emerges.”
Rumley cautioned that the United States could make things more difficult for Israel in the last months of the Obama administration.
“The Obama administration will take a couple parting shots at Israel,” he said, which could include a refusal by the U.S. to veto a U.N. Security Council bill condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The U.S. has vetoed such bills in the past.
“The animosity between Netanyahu and Obama is real, and it’s documented,” Rumley said. “I do worry that Obama will seriously harm Israel in taking a parting shot via the U.N. Security Council. And that will make it more difficult for the next administration to mend ties with Israel.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.