The assessment within Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s circle is unanimous:
He doesn’t want to do it, he shouldn’t need to do it and he won’t do
Netanyahu can’t, after vowing last November that the 10- month freeze
on housing starts at West Bank settlements was a “one-time, temporary”
moratorium, now come out and say, “Well, actually, it’s not quite a one-time,
temporary thing, after all. It’s more of a twotime, or maybe even a three- or
four-time, semi-permanent kind of thing.”
Forget it, those close to the
prime minister indicate. It’s not going to happen. All manner of
arrangements might be possible, but formally extending the freeze would
any last vestiges of trust Netanyahu still enjoys on the pro-settlement
And it would make him a bit of laughing stock all the way across the
The prime minister whose words are worthless.
The prime minister of
The Americans aren’t so sure.
Netanyahu was so
anxious to get talking with the Palestinian Authority, they reason, that
won’t easily let PA President Mahmoud Abbas leave the negotiating table.
certainly going to urge him to extend the freeze, especially given that
Kadima to call on for support if he loses some of the Right in the
Americans might even succeed – if, that is, Netanyahu proves susceptible
another bout of White House pressure. Or if (less probably) he has
far more radical political shift than suggested even by his relentless
assertions of a profound desire for a deal. He did act decisively early
month to block legislation that would have given the Knesset authority
But the Palestinians, often much better at reading
Israel’s politics than the Americans, are betting against it. They’re
that, come September 26, the freeze will melt, and the pressure – the
that is, for progress at the direct peace talks they are so reluctantly
enter with Israel – will be off them.
They’ve only got to stall for
another few weeks, and Israel will be in the dock again.
UNTIL THIS week,
for Abbas, it had been a breeze. For almost nine months, he’d wriggled
out of the Israeli, American and international direct-talks embraces. At
he didn’t really need to do anything.
He was able to relax as the months
went by and the US and Israel simmered in bitter acrimony.
Jerusalem went head-to-head over housing: The Obama administration
Netanyahu’s refusal to halt all construction over the Green Line in east
Jerusalem, and in March tried to use routine new Ramat Shlomo
as leverage, going so far as to publicly question Israel’s commitment to
strategic alliance with the US. Netanyahu, conscious of the support of
Israeli mainstream for building in east Jerusalem’s Jewish
refused to budge. And Abbas sat back contentedly.
After the American
president and the Israeli prime minister belatedly began patching up
differences last month, it got a little trickier for Abbas to stay away
face-to-face talks. Netanyahu was honoring the freeze – which has
halted construction in the West Bank and informally impacted on building
Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, too.
And the West Bank economy was
demonstrably improving, in part because of Israel’s eased
Still, Abbas managed to stave off the unwanted direct
contact for a few more weeks.
Netanyahu pledged a readiness for
negotiations anywhere, right away, with no preconditions.
hinted at possible flexibility down the road regarding security
the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu admitted a tentative readiness to
status of Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. But Abbas would not be
Among his preconditions for looking Netanyahu in the eye across
the negotiating table, Abbas variously insisted on an ongoing and
settlement freeze, advance word on Netanyahu’s stance relating to border
security issues, and a commitment that any territorial adjustments would
on the basis of the pre- 1967 lines. The Americans ratcheted up the
but Abbas was unfazed.
Last weekend, though, the US pulled the rug out
from under him. To his considerable dismay, according to Abbas officials
spoke to our Palestinian Affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh this
learned that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was about to issue
for a ceremonial opening of direct talks without so much as informing
advance. He contemplated rejecting the invitation, but evidently
picking so public a fight with the Obama administration would backfire.
grudgingly accepted, secure in the assessment that Netanyahu will get
the hook by ending the freeze next month.
“If Israel continues with the
settlement construction, we will withdraw from the talks,” he made clear
letter dashed off to the Quartet.
ABBAS HAS worked hard in recent months
to try to correct the damaging impression he had previously given the
world, notably in a Washington Post
interview in May of last year, that
in much of a hurry for a permanent peace accord with Israel.
interview, he had declared that “the gaps” between former prime minister
Olmert’s proposals and his own positions were “too wide,” and indicated
felt time was on the side of the Palestinians.
Since then, in meetings in
the US, including with Jewish leaders, and in Israeli media contacts,
declared a firm desire for an accord based on two states living side by
peace. He has acknowledged the Jews’ “history” in Palestine.
around him, along with those sympathetic to him on the Israeli side,
claimed that he didn’t really pass up Olmert’s peace offer because there
genuine, properly formulated offer – just hurriedly presented proposals
prime minister who was about to step down.
Which begs the central
question now: Since the PA leadership is being wooed by an Israeli prime
minister with a strong coalition, a high degree of popularity, a
capacity to deliver on any deal and a declared commitment to an
Palestinian state, why has Abbas had to be dragged, kicking and
the direct talks framework? Is it because he mistrusts Netanyahu’s
Well, few Israelis can credibly claim to know where exactly the prime
is headed. But Netanyahu said again this week that he was determined to
“surprise all the critics and the skeptics.” Surely the best way to put
the test is at the negotiating table.
Is it because he is cowed by the
hostility to Israel among his own people? Well, that’s a phenomenon he
have sought to confront if he’d wanted to, by energetically advancing
of reconciliation – for starters by stopping his own PA’s glorification
Palestinian “martyrs” and by tackling the demonization of Israel in the
Is it truly because Netanyahu won’t pledge to maintain the
settlement moratorium? That doesn’t square with Abbas’s behavior since
For if the PA chief had really wanted talks, he wouldn’t have
spent the last nine months, when the freeze was biting, avoiding them.
he knows that Netanyahu could be prevailed upon to informally maintain
a partial moratorium – limiting building to settlements in areas Israel
anticipate retaining under a permanent accord.
And a renewal of building
solely in the blocs should not be a disaster for an Abbas who genuinely
peace. It does not contradict his stated willingness for an accord that
for territorial swaps. And his consent to such an arrangement would
credibility of the negotiating process among skeptical Israelis, thereby
the prospects of a deal.
A slightly more plausible explanation for
Abbas’s disinclination to go into the talks and for his evident desire
quickly find a way to back out of them might be that he anticipates
– whether staring at a bleak future after humiliation in the November
elections, or reinvigorated by an unexpectedly strong Democratic showing
seeking to impose a more favorable deal, with widespread international
sometime around year three of his presidency.
But if that were Abbas’s
thinking, he would probably be mistaken. The notion of the Obama
trying to impose a deal if negotiations can’t make progress is not at
far-fetched. The idea that it would be particularly dissimilar to the
parameters is more improbable. And the notion that the Israeli public
on for an imposed deal of that nature is remote.
Maybe, just maybe, with
an American president it really trusted, and a Palestinian leadership it
come to regard as genuinely committed to long-term peace, the Israeli
would contemplate the idea of relinquishing almost all of Judea and
still more dramatically, the division of Jerusalem, including the Old
areas of Israeli and Palestinian control. Maybe, just maybe, the Israeli
mainstream would have gone along with the idea 10 years ago, before the
intifada had demonstrated the vicious extent of Yasser Arafat’s
before the Hamas takeover of Gaza had demonstrated what can happen when
territory is relinquished in the absence of a genuine accord. Maybe,
a few years from now, amid a continuation of the relatively benign
security environment, and at the end of demonstrably good faith
But a Clinton-style deal under an Obama presidency regarded
with wariness, to put it mildly, by Israel? And with a Palestinian
still allowing its media to incite relentlessly against Israel, a
balking at the very idea of negotiating in the same room as the Israeli
government? That’s almost out of the question, however much mainstream
mistrusts the status quo and believes that time is working against
All of which, again, the Palestinians, with their savvy understanding
of the Israeli mind-set, doubtless fully understand.
BUT IF Abbas’s
absent enthusiasm for direct talks isn’t a function of his mistrust of
Netanyahu, or of the ongoing hostility to Israel he has allowed to
his people, or of the settlement freeze’s imminent expiration, or of an
assessment that the US might be able to impose a more favorable deal
line, then why did he stay away for so long, and why is he so keen to
Could it be, as the Israeli pessimists say – pessimists not
the traditional Israeli Right, but deep into the mainstream, too – that
though he may be better intentioned than the duplicitous Arafat, is too
weak-willed to have confronted Arafat’s malevolent legacy, and is
terrified of a
vicious domestic backlash, led by Hamas but including Fatah loyalists,
the crime of negotiating a viable deal? Is it also that he’s betting on
Palestinian fertility, unreconstructed regional opposition to the very
Israel’s existence, and growing international delegitimation of Israel,
ultimately sparing the Palestinians the need for significant
does he believe that the international community will eventually
state of Palestine that his Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad is steadily
constructing, without the need for a negotiated settlement that,
recognizes Israel – without the need for reconciliation and a formal end
decades of conflict?
Not at all, his defenders would doubtless chorus.
really, truly, genuinely, honestly wants an accord.
If so, he’s following
a curious path toward getting one.