Washington Watch: Is the Mideast peace mission impossible?

If Abbas wanted peace, he should Netanyahu’s bluff. Settlements weren’t a hindrance to talks in the past when Palestinians, including Abbas himself, wanted to talk.

By
November 16, 2011 22:57
4 minute read.
Abbas addresses Palestinian independence day

Abbas addresses Palestinian independence day_311. (photo credit: Reuters )

 
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The headline in The Jerusalem Post read, “Israel upset by PA’s refusal to renew talks.”

Count me among the skeptics. I’m not convinced the Netanyahu government is at all disappointed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t ready to return to the peace table.

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Both sides are devoting their energies to finding excuses – not opportunities – not to talk. The Palestinians are demanding a total construction freeze beyond the 1967 lines, and Israel keeps announcing more new building, as each side tries to convince the rest of the world that the other guy is the real obstacle to peace.

Until now US President Barack Obama seemed interested in pushing the unwilling leaders toward the table, but he seems to have given up on both of them. With the election season heating up and Republicans accusing him of being anti-Israel, Obama has no desire to get into a confrontation with pro-Israel voters and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over a peace process that is going nowhere.

More evidence came last week when Obama’s chief Middle East advisor and negotiator, Dennis Ross, announced his resignation. I have no reason to doubt Ross’s stated reason – to spend more time with family – but it’s fair to assume that if serious peace negotiations were underway or even imminent he wouldn’t be quitting.

The international Quartet – US, EU, UN and Russia – was in the Middle East this week ostensibly to revive negotiations.

An overly optimistic State Department spokesman called the group’s meetings with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators “constructive” and said the Quartet hopes to “entice” the parties to return to direct negotiations.



Translation: bupkis.

CONDITIONS FOR resuscitation have never been so bleak, and the only chance for real progress may be the election of new Israeli and Palestinian leaders who want to do more to make peace than just talk about it.

The Palestinians repeated their demand that Israel must halt all construction in territory beyond the 1967 lines, including east Jerusalem, and accept that line as the basis for negotiations of a two-state solution. Israel insists on no pre-conditions, which is also the Quartet’s position.

The Quartet urged both parties to “refrain from provocative actions,” a statement really aimed at discouraging Israeli announcements of new settlement construction. And that’s about the extent of Quartet consensus. Beyond that the members can’t find common ground on core issues like borders, refugees, Jerusalem and Israel as a Jewish state.

“Whatever the Quartet says or does, it appears to have lost all credibility in both Israel and Palestine,” said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst.

“The incompatibility of [the Netanyahu] government with a genuine peace process should have been obvious from the outset, more than two-and-a-half years ago,” he added.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in her new memoir, No Higher Honor, that then-prime minister Ehud Olmert made “remarkable” concessions in a dramatic offer for a comprehensive agreement in 2008 but Abbas rejected it, refusing even to make a counter proposal.

Abbas, further eroding his own credibility, has lately been saying he is ready to discuss Olmert’s offer with Netanyahu, who opposed it at the time and still does. He’s also ready to consider the 1947 UN Partition Plan to divide the British Mandate into two states, one for the Jews and one for the Palestinians. “It was our mistake” to turn it down, he told an Israeli television interviewer.

One reporter likened efforts to revive the peace talks to flogging a dead horse.

Abbas just suffered a major defeat when the UN Security Council refused to take up his application for recognition and membership. He failed to get at least nine of the 15 votes to force his application to a vote and give him at least a moral victory that would isolate the US by forcing it to use its veto on behalf of Israel. The administration called in a lot of chits to win this one, but don’t expect much gratitude from Netanyahu or his supporters.

Abbas is blaming Obama for the failure of his own mistaken UN strategy, which he touted as an effort to revive peace talks. And he accused Netanyahu of forcing him to bypass direct talks and going to the UN by refusing his conditions for direct talks.

Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas has made a convincing case that he really is ready to make peace and go to his people and sell them on the painful concessions an agreement will inevitably require.

If Abbas were honest about wanting peace, all he need do is call Netanyahu’s bluff. Don’t hide behind demands for a settlement freeze; settlements weren’t a hindrance to at least starting past negotiations when Palestinians, including Abbas himself, wanted to talk.

He may be right about Netanyahu bluffing, but he won’t find out until the Israeli leader is called out. Abbas can announce he’s ready to negotiate a two-state solution based on the prime minister’s Bar-Ilan address. No conditions.

Unless Abbas is also bluffing.

The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He writes regularly for Anglo-Jewish newspapers and is the former legislative director of AIPAC and Washington representative of the World Jewish Congress.

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