I presume US President Barack Obama did as he said he would in his pre-visit interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View, and shared with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu the unpleasant truths about making peace. Now let’s hope he doesn’t miss the opportunity to do the same when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas drops by the White House next Monday.
Many on the Israeli Right were offended that the president was so blunt. “Unprecedented breach of diplomatic etiquette,” said a typical irate supporter, accusing the president of having “sandbagged” Netanyahu. Never mind that Netanyahu himself had done much the same before meeting American presidents in prior years.
After taking a back seat to his secretary of state, it appears the president is stepping in as the closer in an effort to convince both sides to embrace the framework John Kerry is preparing for moving their peace talks into what he hopes will be the home stretch. Some suggest Obama is playing the bad cop to the indefatigable Kerry’s good cop.
Abbas, meanwhile, has been on his own offensive to soften up Obama. He has long hidden behind his weakness to deflect pressure to make the same kind of difficult decisions being demanded of the far stronger – though equally insecure– Netanyahu.
That may explain why Netanyahu went home and gave his first interview in a year to Israeli media so he could boast, “I’ve proven that I know how to stand up very well to pressures and criticism.”
Obama was quoted telling Netanyahu he intends to press Abbas “to make tough decisions,” but the PA quickly shot back that “there is nothing left that we can make concessions on” so don’t “put us in a corner.”
The PA statement claimed Netanyahu’s tough talk showed compromise doesn’t work and “the dream of peace is slowly fading away. Israel isn’t interested in real peace.”
It sounded a lot like what Netanyahu said in Washington last week, just change a few nouns.
“[T]he problem is with the Palestinians – prove you want peace. There is no doubt that Israel wants peace... I made concessions that I think in some cases [were] too much... But the Palestinians have not moved from their original positions,” Netanyahu said.
In all the pronouncements from lesser officials on both sides, it is never clear if they are speaking for their divided governments or just themselves. It’s best to assume it is no one but themselves, particularly since even most cabinet ministers and party leaders are intentionally kept out of the loop.
Assorted Palestinian figures claiming inside knowledge are telling reporters Abbas is not authorized to make concessions on Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and borders, and that the PA will hold Israel responsible for failure of the talks because of its refusal to meet all Palestinian demands.
In public, at least, both leaders are sticking to their hardline positions, making it difficult to tell the difference between posturing and principle. The two sides haven’t met in many weeks and are said to be deadlocked.
Netanyahu demands Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jews and insists Jerusalem remain undivided and under full Israeli rule.
Both are unacceptable to Abbas, who wants east Jerusalem as the capital of his state and repeatedly has declared his opposition to recognizing Israel as the Jewish state. In the latter he got the Arab League’s full backing over the weekend.
None of Netanyahu’s predecessors have required endorsement of Jewish statehood, not of the Palestinians and not in peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Some observers believe Netanyahu inserted this demand because he knew Abbas would feel compelled to reject it on the grounds it would constitute an abandonment of the rights of Israeli Arabs and claims of Palestinian refugees.
Abbas has repeatedly said, “We recognized Israel in mutual recognition in the  Oslo agreement – why do they now ask us to recognize the Jewishness of the state?” The State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, repeated on Monday the US position “has been for quite some time that Israel is a Jewish state,” but Washington is not demanding the Palestinians agree. That is for the parties to negotiate, she said.
Before reaching nine-month target date for the talks, Kerry is expected to give each side a framework, possibly including proposed approaches on the core issues, and tell each side that if they reject it, the United States will shelve the peace process until both tell Washington they are ready.
Look for Netanyahu to say “yes, but” and Abbas to say “no, but” to the Kerry outline.
The secretary of state will propose completing final-status negotiations by the end of this year, Netanyahu will suggest a one-year extension and Abbas has been threatening to walk out and take unilateral moves like going to the UN for full recognition (which will likely run into a US veto) and the World Court.
But he’s bluffing. He does not want to be blamed for the collapse of the talks, so he will try to exact a price for remaining, such as a settlement construction freeze and the release of additional prisoners.
Kerry is also offering a sweetener – a $4 billion jumpstart for the Palestinian economy.
The economic initiative is complementary to the political negotiations, not a substitute, stressed Tony Blair, the international quartet’s Middle East peace envoy, who hosted a twoday conference last weekend in Prague for international business and financial leaders.
Following his meeting with Abbas, Obama will go to Saudi Arabia to mend fences – like Israel, the royals think he’s not tough enough with Iran – and to ask King Abdullah to back the peace talks and give Abbas the shove he needs to make a deal.
Abbas and Netanyahu may want to exploit the president’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Russia to walk away from the talks and let him take the blame for their failure while they pursue their unilateral options, but they will find they are embarking on a dangerous and potentially violent collision course.
©2014 Douglas M. Bloomfield