Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: Andrew Gombert/EPA)
Months before Secretary of State John Kerry arrived at this year’s World Economic Forum in Amman, Jordan to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a key Abbas confidant told me the US-led peace process had no future, and neither did the Palestinian Authority.
“They pushed as PLO leaders, they pushed us as seculars to give up,” Nasser Laham, the 46-year-old editor-in-chief of Ma’an News Agency, said of the Israeli government. “I confess in front of you: I give up!”
Nasser Laham with his 11-year-old son in his office at
Maan News Agency in Bethlehem (Photo: Max Blumenthal)
Laham continued: “I like Mahmoud Abbas. I believe in Mahmoud Abbas. I like Salam Fayyad. I like non-violence. I believe in peace. And let me give you this confession: I give up! And now, let [the Israelis] deal with Jihad, and Hamas, and Al Qaeda – congratulations! And I know, in my heart, in my mind, in just a few years, Israel will be evaporated, completely deleted from this country.”
I met Laham at his office in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank last December. Though he is little known among English-speaking news consumers, Laham is one of the most influential commentators in Palestinian media, hosting several shows for Ma’an and publishing a widely read column. With his fluency in Hebrew (like many Palestinian men his age, he learned the language in an Israeli jail) and contacts on the other side of the wall, networks across the Middle East seek out his insights on Israeli politics and society.
Laham is also a top ally of Abbas, and is routinely seen alongside the P.A. President around Bethlehem and Ramallah. Once a fervent advocate of a diplomatic settlement with the Israeli government, Laham has lost faith in the possibility of a Palestinian state, while casting doubt on the prospect of Israel’s survival in an increasingly tumultuous region.
“We failed,” he told me. “The PLO made a mistake. The negotiations with Israel failed. Arafat believed in peace, signed with Rabin, they killed Rabin, they killed Arafat, they succeeded, and I believe we will have to pay the price…. Trust me, in just days or months, we will quit. We gave up. Congratulations. Game over. We failed. We made a mistake. We believed in peace.”
Laham crushed a cigarette into an ashtray on his desk and threw his hands in the air. “We are saying to our people, we are sorry!” he exclaimed. “Forgive us. I can say this because I’m a journalist and a writer: I’m sorry that I wasted twenty years of my life trying for peace in this area to people like [Avigdor] Lieberman and his friends. I’m not sad, though, and I’m not angry. But I’m praying that America will step in, because I know the result if we continue struggling. Bloodshed, again and again. And Israel will have to escape from here, by the sky, by the sea, by the camel, and you will see the new Middle East after the Arab Spring.”
Our interview took place days before Israel’s national elections, in which the settlement movement would consolidate its influence. Laham commented that the election’s ultimate meaning was that “there will be no two states. So we have two nations in one land,” he said, “but Israel refuses to call it one state — they don’t like this vocabulary. Let them call it what they like. But there will be no Palestinian state — I can’t see on a map where is Palestine and where is Israel.”
Laham said he liked to challenge Israeli journalists to draw their country on a map, only because none of them are able to do it. “We are at a loss to understand Israel right now,” he remarked. “They call me from all the networks to talk about Israeli society; I have five books, mostly about Israel, and honestly, really, I can’t understand the Israeli people. I just don’t know what they want. Ask the settlers, ask the leaders, if the West Bank is Israel, why are you occupying it? Why don’t you give the Palestinians Israeli citizenship? If yes, why not? So I think they don’t know. They only invest in time and this is not sustainable.”
Laham told me he had repeatedly urged Abbas to quit his post and “leave these crazy Israeli leaders.” He said that at the time I met him, Abbas and the Western-backed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were “depressed, frustrated and surprised” by how badly things had turned out for the P.A.
“2013 will be the decisions year,” Laham told me. “Enough thinking about what to do. We will say to the Israelis, take it or leave it — the Palestinian state.”
“I forgot to tell you,” he added, “after we quit, we will not advise. There is no free advice. We will not advise Israel or the Americans. We will be observers, just watching.”
Though Fayyad resigned in April amid tensions with Fatah senior leadership and against the pleadings of Kerry, Abbas has shown no sign that he will heed Laham’s advice. Record Israeli settlement building was forcing Palestinians from their property across East Jerusalem and the West Bank, however, Abbas remained stubbornly in his place. “Until now, [Abbas] listens to Obama,” Laham complained. “I don’t know why.”
Laham brought the interview to a close with a story about Shafik al-Hout, the Palestinian Liberation Front founder who grew up in Jaffa, and was among the tens of thousands of Palestinians forced from their homes by the Israeli army in 1948.
“Al Jazeera interviewed al-Hout before his death,” he recalled. “The main question they asked him was, Why did Israel win in 1948? He said, ‘The Jews could hate us enough to kill us, but we couldn’t hate the Jews enough to kill them.’
“And now we hate them enough,” Laham declared plaintively. “We hate them enough.”