Abbas has a bitter birthday message for Israel

What does it say about the Palestinian commitment to peace when the first American president to make creation of a Palestinian state a goal of his administration is told he is unwelcome when he comes next week to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday?

When President Bush goes to Israel he will be persona non grata in the Palestinian Authority because they will be mourning the establishment of the Jewish state, which they refer to as “al Naqba,” or “the catastrophe.”

That’s not Hamas or Islamic Jihad, who make no secret of their desire to eradicate the state of Israel, but it is the man most identified with the concept of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, living side-by-side in peace — Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Even though he won’t be welcome in Ramallah, Bush welcomed Abbas at the White House last week when the Palestinian leader came to urge him to put more pressure on Israel to meet Palestinian demands if he expects to achieve his goal of a peace agreement before he leaves office.

Bush isn’t the only one being snubbed; the Palestinian Authority has told French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders attending the Israeli celebration that they are equally unwelcome.

If Bush wants to see Abbas, he will have to go to Egypt. In a further effort to accommodate Palestinian sensitivities, Bush reportedly will not be visiting the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism and location of the ancient Temple that the Palestinians insist never existed.

Meanwhile, the Authority is trying to organize a march of more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon toward the Israeli border and thousands more from the West Bank and Gaza toward Israeli checkpoints and border crossings. Those living abroad are being urged to fly to Ben Gurion Airport or take ships to Israeli ports. All this in the name of “reclaiming” homes lost in the Naqba.

They are being billed as “peaceful demonstrations,” but it won’t take much for the emotionally charged confrontations to turn violent, creating a real catastrophe.

But the real Naqba is not the creation of the Jewish state but the rejection by Arab leaders of the 1947 partition plan and the opportunity to create a state for the Palestinians. They weren’t really interested in a two-state solution then and many apparently still are not — Abbas’ yanking the welcome mat raises questions about his own professed commitment.

The tragedy, of course, was compounded by a succession of Israeli leaders too timid and too focused on their own political careers to confront a radical settlers movement consumed with its dreams of a greater Israel and opposed to peace with the Palestinians on any terms likely to be accepted.

Abbas is snubbing two important allies: the president of the United States and the Israeli public. He needs both if he wants to achieve peace.

An unnamed senior Palestinian official told the Jerusalem Post that Abbas left the White House “angry and depressed” last week when Bush turned down his demands to tighten the screws on the Israelis. The Bush administration is not a credible honest broker and Palestinians will have to wait for the next president, he said.

He fails to understand that the close relationship between Washington and Jerusalem makes the United States an indispensable intermediary between Israel and the Arabs; it is the only country with the credibility and clout for that role.

However, he’s right on the second point. After six years of neglect, the Bush administration has started to talk as if peace was a real priority — but action has lagged far behind rhetoric. The Republican and Democratic candidates for president have indicated they would get more personally involved in Mideast peacemaking.

Israeli public opinion can be a valuable asset; it is often ahead of the political leadership. Ehud Olmert was elected prime minister two years ago on a platform calling for withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, and that was just for starters. There was hope for peace; the Gaza withdrawal was expected to create a showcase for Palestinian self-rule but instead Gaza sunk into chaos and Hamas seized power in a coup.

The daily barrage of missiles from Gaza, the failures of the Second Lebanon War, scandals that have seen the Israeli president resign and the prime minister under multiple corruption investigations cast shadows over this Independence Day celebration. The Olmert government could fall and if elections were held today it is likely the next prime minister would be Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes Palestinian statehood and Bush’s Annapolis initiative.

Abbas strengthens Netanyahu and the rejectionists when he tells Israelis that the anniversary of their independence is a day of mourning, and Palestinians will never recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.

Jews were driven out of Arab lands in roughly the same number as Arabs who fled Israel at the time of the creation of the Jewish state. The difference was that the Jews were absorbed into the new state, given jobs and citizenship, while the Palestinians were largely confined to squalid camps in order for their unwilling Arab hosts to exploit them as political pawns to use against Israel.

Sixty years later Palestinian statehood is as elusive as ever and the Palestinians are still blaming their suffering on everyone but themselves. Now that’s a catastrophe.

Douglas Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant who was former chief legislative lobbyist for AIPAC.