Palestinians say that for Muslims, Palestinian land reaches «from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea» — that is, over all of what is now Israel. In their view, Tel Aviv is illegally occupied territory just as much as any of the settlements in the West Bank. This view is based on the Muslim doctrine, deeply rooted in Islamic jurisprudence, called «waqf» (religious endowment). Any territory once under the control of Muslims, must forever be controlled by Muslims. According to Islamic law, «If a person makes something waqf, it ceases to be his property and neither he nor anybody else can gift or sell it to any other person.
Unfortunately, the premises on which American negotiations — led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, Martin Indyk — are based are completely at odds with the premises on which Middle Eastern negotiations are based.
Americans seem to believe that all problems are solvable; if there is no solution, it simply means one has not tried hard enough. Americans generally are prepared to compromise on particular points to attain other points that are more important to them. When both sides reach an agreement, Americans usually are prepared to put past disagreements to bed. By making concessions, neither side has compromised its personal honor. Americans focus on the goal, which is to attain an agreement both sides can live with. We negotiate, arrive at an agreement and let bygones be bygones.
Not so in the Middle East. The mere concept is inconceivable in the winner-take-all culture of that part of the world.
Middle Easterners live with problems they know are unsolvable. For most, their immediate problems are never solved. Furthermore, any compromise is regarded solely as a backsliding that reduces personal honor and results only in indelible public shame. Far preferable is to paint a beautiful, if fictitious, patina over festering problems that cannot be solved, rather than to endure shame, dishonor and public humiliation.
For many in the Middle East, perceived wrongdoings are never in the past and the past is never over. Wrongs – such as the Christian conquest of Muslim Spain, regardless of when they occurred — must be righted. Given the choice between war and shame, Middle Easterners will often choose war, even if that choice will result in both war and shame.
Because Muslims ruled Spain from 712-1492 C.E., today, over five hundred year later, Muslim organizations there are still preparing to reconquer it in the name of Islam.
Osama Bin Laden also repeatedly spoke about righting a perceived wrong he felt the West had imposed on the Muslim world more than 80 years ago: Turkey’s then-leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, expelled the entire family of the Ottoman Sultan, the Caliph, leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims.
So too with much of the area the Romans conquered in 6 A.D. The Emperor Hadrian renamed it Palestina in 135 A.D, but the area was then taken from the Eastern Roman Empire by the Muslims in 637 A.D.
Today, any Palestinian Muslim leader who would sign a final peace agreement recognizing as Jewish any part of what had once been part of the Muslim World would be violating a core tenet of Islam. And any Palestinian leader who agreed to surrender land held in trust by the Muslim waqf would not only be humiliated, but very likely assassinated.
Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, faced this dilemma at Camp David in 2000, when Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, offered Arafat all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with the exception of what was under the Temple Mount. Arafat, knowing that he could never accept such an agreement, rejected Barak’s offer. He then asserted that, «There never was a Jewish Temple there,» and is reputed to have said, «Do you want see me up there having tea with Sadat?» — a reference to the assassination by Islamists of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, who had signed a peace treaty with Israel.
Kerry, Indyk and their staff, even with the best intentions, seem unaware that Muslims cannot ever, under any conditions, cede territory regarded as rightfully belonging to Muslims — or, more aptly, to Allah — to non-Muslims.
So even with Kerry’s and Indyk’s — or anyone’s — best efforts, any attempt to coax Abbas into signing a permanent agreement that would undermine this Muslim requirement is futile.
Abbas undoubtedly understood the nature of his engagement with Kerry and Indyk from the outset. He correctly calculated that so long as he continued to negotiate with Israel, the Americans and Europeans would continue to prop him up with political backing and financial support in the mistaken assumption that a solution can be reached.
Looking at the public record of these negotiations, it seems apparent that the more the President and Secretary of State pressured Abbas to accept a final peace agreement with Israel, the more fearful he became that if he were to sign such an agreement, he too would find himself «having tea with Sadat.»
Given that Islam cannot accept a Jewish state, the Palestinians win peace talks by «not losing.» While Israeli leaders seek peace, Palestinian leaders seek an endless peace process. Abbas simply needs to find a way to draw out the negotiations as long as possible, without ever coming to a final agreement.
Abbas, in all likelihood, knows he cannot rely on the Jordanians or Saudis to back him. Leaders of both nations have publicly said that they would agree to any agreement the Palestinians accepted with Israel — the equivalent of firing blanks. The announcement was an excellent tactical move on their part: any Muslim leader who would permanently hand over Muslim territory to non-Muslims — especially to Jews — would be subject to public humiliation and almost certain assassination. Far better to let Abbas suffer the consequences rather than they, and meanwhile absolve themselves from any shame or blame in the process.
Abbas’s other out seems to have been embracing his mortal Palestinian enemy, Hamas. Abbas was doubtlessly aware that Hamas would also never consent to the conditions previously imposed on it by the Middle East Quartet: rejecting violence, recognizing Israel and accepting previous accords. Hamas could be counted on never to accept any treaty with Israel, as evidenced by the Hamas charter, which repeatedly calls not only for the destruction of Israel, but also of the Jews.
This rapprochement with Hamas, however, not only enables Abbas to continue receiving funds from the U.S. and Europe, but later to be able to blame Hamas for any subsequent failure of the talks. Abbas now does not have to choose between either possible death or certain dishonor in the eyes of his fellow Palestinians. Hamas therefore provides the perfect cover Abbas needs not to sign any permanent peace agreement that Kerry & Co. still seem so determined to deliver.
Thus, Kerry and Indyk have been pushing Abbas into a corner by trying to convince him to commit suicide in the name of permanently solving the Arab-Israeli dispute. Their inability or unwillingness to structure their framework accordingly has, in fact, enabled Abbas to entrench his negotiating positions even further.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in happier times, at a press conference in Ramallah on January 4, 2013. (Image source: U.S. State Department)
The problem seems again to come from a clash between Western culture and Islamic Middle Eastern culture. As one can see from Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria and Iraq, many Muslims cannot even accept the existence of a Muslim state ruled by Christians or, it often seems, a state in which more than a handful of Christians, except foreign workers, even exist.
Any agreement, such as a hudna [«truce»], is understood to be only temporary, until adequate forces can be built up with which to launch yet another attack.
Abbas, cloaking his apparent rapprochement with Hamas as an attempt to unify the Palestinian people, is meanwhile also bolstering his declining status among his West Bank constituents. Although the Palestinian Authority is popular internationally — in 2012, it achieved upgraded status as a non-member state in the United Nations — it is weak domestically, with Abbas in the ninth year of his four year term in office.
Conversely, Hamas is relatively weak internationally – designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the US, Egypt, the EU, Canada, Japan, and Australia — but strong domestically. In 2007, Hamas expelled most Fatah members in a bloody coup and consolidated its control over Gaza.
From Abbas’s position, the unity bid probably represented a win-win, permitting him to dodge Kerry diplomatically while appealing to his constituents domestically.
If anything, Kerry and Indyk should blame themselves for undermining their own well-intentioned efforts to achieve peace.
 For an example of this principle, see Article 11 of the Hamas Charter, which states: «The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it.»
 For more on the concept of waqf, see https://www.princeton.edu/~
 «What did Indyk contribute to peace talks?» Reuters, Newsletter 11.05.2014
 Notes of a Century, Bernard Lewis, p. 247-8.
 Camp David: An Exchange – The New York Review of Books, September 20, 2001
 «Israel to U.S. and EU: Palestinians Deceived Kerry«, Haaretz, May 7, 2014.