Washington Watch: An inauspicious beginning

By D. BLOOMFIELD
August 25, 2010 22:18

It is hard to find much optimism for a peace process that neither Abbas nor Netanyahu seems to want or be prepared for.

4 minute read.



netanyahu abbas shake hands 248 88

netanyahu abbas shake hands 248 88. (photo credit: )

No sooner had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the resumption of Mideast peace talks “without preconditions” than the Palestinians threatened to walk out, nearly two weeks before they were even scheduled to begin, unless their conditions were met.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who constantly kvetched that everyone in the world, particularly his Arab brethren, was pressuring him to sit down with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, demanded all Jewish construction in territories he wants for a Palestinian state be frozen before he’d talk.

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That was shot down Monday by the State Department, which told him to take it up personally with Netanyahu.

Look for Netanyahu to extend the freeze, but not without some of his own moaning and groaning.

The 10-month moratorium he announced last year expires September 26, and Netanyahu has complained that he is under intense pressure to resume construction.

It’s not as tough as he’d have us believe. He can win the political backing he needs by pointing to the success of his freeze in repairing relations with Washington, achieving better coordination on Iran policy, improving Israel’s international image and getting direct talks started. He is politically popular at home, has no viable political opposition from either direction, and if far right members of his coalition decide to quit, he can replace them with centrists willing to give peace a chance.

Abbas lost on his insistence that talks resume where they left off the last time he walked out, in December 2008, but he did win on his demand that all final status issues be on the table and that there be a time frame for completion. But his most important achievement went virtually unnoticed. US peace envoy George Mitchell opened the door to an American peace plan when he announced Washington will be an “active and sustained partner” free to offer “bridging proposals” to break any impasse, not only when asked but when “we deem necessary and appropriate.”

ABBAS, UNLIKE Netanyahu, encourages more active US involvement, confident Washington’s positions on many issues – most notably settlements – are closer to his own, but the Palestinians’ Achilles heel has been their stubborn and unrealistic confidence that others would force their terms on Israel, saving them from serious bargaining.

The administration has repeatedly denied it would offer an American plan, much less try to impose it, a move that would be politically very risky.

This is an American show, announced by the secretary of state and to be launched with a White House dinner. The international Quartet which is supposed to oversee the peace process will be represented only by Tony Blair, and the Arab League by Jordanian King Abdullah II and, health permitting, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a supporting role.

The one-year time frame is not a deadline, as Palestinians would have preferred, and if the talks are going well a year from now, they will likely be extended.

Some unnamed Palestinian officials have hinted that if they’re unsatisfied with progress in the talks, Abbas might go to the UN to seek recognition for statehood, bypassing negotiations. Look for Washington to block that move as dangerously provocative.

BARACK OBAMA appears to be keeping a low profile for a president who has made this a centerpiece of his foreign policy. He let his secretary of state make the announcement, and he is only hosting a private dinner the evening before talks begin. But should they fail, as most people expect, the blame will be his.

Now that he has Palestinian and Israeli leaders meeting face-to-face, Obama needs his own face time with their constituents. That means going to Israel and to Palestine to sell skeptical publics, especially in Israel, on his vision for peace and reliability as a friend. That long-overdue trip is critical to winning needed support.

Don’t rush out to reserve your place for the peace treaty signing ceremony. It is hard to find much optimism for a peace process that neither Abbas nor Netanyahu seems to want or be prepared for.

Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher has said neither man is “ideologically inclined or politically positioned to resolve all the final-status issues.”

For now, Netanyahu is winning the PR game, welcoming the talks, sounding optimistic and vowing to “surprise the critics and skeptics” with his readiness to make peace, while a weak and pessimistic Abbas is writing the obituary before the negotiations take their first breath. Mitchell insists both leaders are serious and sincere and believe peace can be achieved.

But it will take a lot more than rhetoric and testimonials. Both sides have an American president who wants to see the process succeed; their own constituents, who are enjoying economic prosperity and political stability, are telling pollsters they are ready for a two-state solution, and they don’t want to see another intifada.

But are their leaders ready? Can they afford to raise expectations only to see them crash and burn – literally – once again?

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