Speaking to Yossi Beilin, the former chairman of Israel's Meretz party, in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik where both men were attending the World Economic Forum, Abbas described the next six months as the "most crucial" in the ongoing search for a peace agreement. The Palestinian leader said that if no agreement was reached in that timeframe, there would be no reason for him to continue as president.
Voicing his pessimism, Abbas lamented the lack of progress in the peace talks: "So far, we have not reached an agreement on any issue. Any report indicating otherwise is simply not true."
Abbas warned Israel that it "will not have a better partner than the group leading the PLO today, which believes the Palestinian interest is a historic reconciliation with Israel and a Palestinian state alongside it."
Said Abbas, "Israel will find itself with no partner at all." He then warned that a deadlock in peace negotiations would likely revive the violence brought about by the second intifada.
A statement issued by Beilin's office quoted Abbas as saying that he "would see no point in continuing in his position" if a deal was not reached.
Indeed, the very thought of Abbas resigning ought to frighten Israeli leaders far more than the 40,000 rockets Hezbollah is reported to have amassed in southern Lebanon in anticipation of the next conflict, which many analysts say is more a question of when, rather than if.
Israel's political leadership should wake up to the reality of the danger presented by the eventual resignation of Abbas. The departure of Abbas, a moderate who recognizes Israel's right to exist and supports a two-state solution, would be catastrophic for all sides involved in the peace process.
First, for the Palestinians, Abbas' resignation would almost certainly empower Hamas and the groups opposed to a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the crisis. That would weaken Fatah and the moderates, rendering the Islamists -- and by default, Iran and Syria -- all the more powerful. The parties opposed to a negotiated settlement of the crisis would flout Abbas and those who believed in the peace process, telling them, "You had your chance, and you were unable to make any headway. Move over now and let us deal with Israel, our way."
Second, for the Israelis, the departure of Abbas would open the way for Islamist rule in the Palestinian territories, quite possibly accompanied by a new wave of violence, suicide bombings and perhaps an all-out campaign of civil disobedience. Israel is now at a crucial crossroads in its history. The manner in which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, or quite possibly his successor -- Tzipi Livni or Benjamin Netanyahu -- handles the negotiations with the Palestinians will impact the future of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians and the very future of the Jewish state.
Third, for the United States, the demise of Abbas and his replacement by the Islamists would be a clear failure of President Bush's attempt to see the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the time he leaves office in January 2009. But far more detrimental to U.S. interests in the region would be the fallout of Palestinian moderates being sidelined. With Abbas and Fatah out and Hamas calling the shots, Washington, which refuses to engage the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement in negotiations, would find itself frozen out of the peace process. Damascus and Tehran would be calling the shots.
Of course, this disastrous scenario can very easily be avoided. What is needed to avert the worst is for Bush to, first, have a clear understanding of the dire consequences Abbas' resignation would bring about. Second, based on the understanding of the first point, the U.S. president must start exerting pressure on the Israelis and persuading Olmert to become less rigid, making him understand that Abbas' resignation would regress the status of Israeli-Palestinian relations back to the days of the Rejection Front when in September 1967 during an Arab summit in Khartoum several Palestinian organizations backed by a number of Arab countries came up with the three "No's":
No to peace with Israel; No recognition of Israel; No negotiations with Israel.
The chances of Bush pressuring Israel? About nil. Particularly if one looks at Bush's speech in the Knesset Thursday, in which he showered Israel with praise, a speech that "angered us," said Abbas. Speaking to reporters, Abbas said he did not expect the United States to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, but he did want them "to stand by (our) legitimacy ... and have a minimum of neutrality."
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)