Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could never do for himself – transform the Israeli leader’s image from hawk to dove. And he had help from American, European and even Arab leaders who are urging Abbas to quit dawdling and meet the Israeli prime minister at the peace table.

The Obama administration weighed in Monday with State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley publicly warning Abbas “there are consequences to failing to take advantage of this opportunity.”

That came after he seemed to ignore private messages from US peace envoy George Mitchell that President Obama is running out of patience with his playing hard to get.

Crowley said Palestinian reports that Obama threatened to break relations if Abbas didn’t act soon were absurd, but he reminded the Palestinians that “you gain leverage inside a direct negotiation,” not by standing outside making demands, and “we do not want to have preconditions to the start of negotiations.”

Even the Arab League appeared to side with Netanyahu; it urged Abbas to move quickly to direct talks and put no conditions on that advice, saying only the decision was up to the Palestinian leader. That infuriated Hamas, which warned direct talks “will seriously damage the interests of the Palestinians.”

Hamas sees any movement toward peace as a threat, which may explain the increased incidents of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel recently. The Telegraph of London aptly summed it up in a headline: “Hamas has no interest in anything except dead Israelis.”

Netanyahu has deftly outmaneuvered Abbas and scored major public relations victories. In subtle signals to the Palestinians, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders have met publicly in the past week with Netanyahu in the wake of his successful fence-mending White House visit. Obama has urged European and Arab leaders to join him in urging direct negotiations. That alone should disabuse Abbas – who has complained he’s never experienced such widespread international pressure – of any hopes that he could stall long enough for the administration to get frustrated with the lack of progress and push an American peace plan.

Abbas has no shortage of preconditions before he’ll sit down with Netanyahu. He started out demanding a total settlement freeze, including in east Jerusalem, and has steadily added to his list. Talks must resume where they left off in late 2008 under Netanyahu’s predecessor, Israeli must agree that borders will be based on the 1949 Armistice lines, an international force must enforce the borders and there must be a deadline for completing negotiations.


THE LATEST development, reportedly, is a three-way meeting of US, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as early as next week to set the agenda and timetable for direct talks. That comes as Netanyahu told his Cabinet this week that negotiations could begin this month and called on Abbas to “take a brave decision” – suggesting the Palestinian leader lacks the courage to negotiate with him. (Can you imagine the international outrage if the proverbial shoe was on the other foot and Bibi were the one using every imaginable excuse to avoid meeting Abbas?)

Abbas insists Netanyahu’s 10-month partial freeze on West Bank construction, which expires next month, be renewed and expanded before he will agree to a sit-down. The PM says that would be political suicide and, besides, he won’t do anything until Abbas meets with him.

Abbas and Netanyahu will continue playing the Alphonse-and-Gaston routine, each refusing to make the first move. Each is commitment-phobic. Abbas wants guarantees of the outcome before he goes in, and Netanyahu is more anxious to talk than deal and has spoken of dragging things out for a decade or so to implement any agreement they may reach.

But, so far, Netanyahu has the upper hand, and that, along with his reluctant and delayed decision to go along with a UN investigation of the May 31 Gaza flotilla incident, have done much to repair his relations not only with the Obama administration but with European and even Arab leaders as well. For much of that he is indebted to hyper-cautious Abbas.

Netanyahu’s claim that extending and possibly even expanding the construction freeze would be political suicide is an exaggeration, says Gilbert Kahn, a political science professor at Kean University.

“Netanyahu is actually in a strategically no-lose situation but in a critical one politically. It remains to be seen if he has the political courage and statesmanship to confront his own political viability,” he said. ”There are really no political leaders – or opponents – to challenge him in any direction.”

Netanyahu is riding high today – he has the Americans, Europeans and even Arab leaders backing his call for the reluctant Abbas to join him at the negotiating table. But once those talks begin, he will have to make some very difficult – and historic – compromises and decisions. He will have to live up to his own rhetoric and show that he is ready to make peace, not just talk about it endlessly. He can’t keep depending on Abbas and the Palestinians to keep missing opportunities to make peace.

bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com

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