Washington Watch: The French connection

France’s offer of a peace conference in Paris is an opportunity for Abbas to save face by declaring his UN strategy succeeded because he got the negotiations he insists were his real goal all along.

By DOUGLAS M. BLOOMFIELD
June 8, 2011 23:32
4 minute read.
Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Mahmoud Abbas has a penchant for climbing out on limbs and expecting others to get him down. The first time wasn’t all his fault.

When newly minted President Barack Obama demanded Israel freeze settlements as a path to the peace table, Abbas, who had never set such conditions previously, could not agree to less. Trouble is, Israel rejected it and Obama soon walked away, leaving Abbas hanging.

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Abbas climbed down briefly when Binyamin Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze, but the Palestinian leader, who never really had much of an appetite for negotiations, dawdled for the first nine months and then demanded Netanyahu extend the freeze indefinitely.

No thanks, said the Israeli prime minister, who didn’t have much of an appetite either.

Abbas scampered back out on his settlement limb and two more, costing him the backing of the Obama administration.

First, he began pursuing a policy of appealing to the UN General Assembly for recognition of Palestinian statehood and membership, confident he could win the needed two-thirds vote. Then he signed a unity pact with Hamas, knowing Israel would not negotiate with a government that included a terrorist group dedicated to its annihilation.

Mahmoud the limb climber was stranded when French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe arrived in Ramallah last week with a ladder in the form of an invitation to a Middle East peace conference in Paris. He then went to Jerusalem to deliver the same invitation to Netanyahu.



It was a lucky break because Abbas’s UN strategy was starting to crumble, so he quickly accepted the invitation.

What was supposed to be a slam-dunk at the UN turned out to be a blocked shot thanks to the Swiss guard and intense personal lobbying by the American president.

Joseph Deiss, the Swiss diplomat who is currently president of the General Assembly, declared that General Assembly action requires approval of the Security Council – where an American veto is almost certain.

(However, that could change in September, when Deiss will be replaced by Qatar’s UN Ambassador, who could have a very different interpretation, and the Security Council will be chaired by Lebanon’s delegate.) Ma’an, the Palestinian news agency, reported Abbas aides concede his UN strategy is failing and his best hope may be a face-saving, non-binding resolution saying the Palestinians deserve a state of their own.

The French are offering Abbas a chance to say he got the negotiations he demanded. But Netanyahu is apparently unwilling to cooperate, even though he is no longer being asked to freeze any settlement construction or make any advance concessions, and the French invitation speaks not of the usual two-state solution but of “two states for two peoples” – an implicit endorsement of Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu signaled his rejection at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, citing the Fatah-Hamas unity deal.

For all his rhetoric in Washington, whether lecturing the president in the Oval Office, rousing AIPAC loyalists or addressing Congress, Netanyahu seems intent on cementing his reputation as all talk and no action when it comes to making peace.

France’s diplomatic soufflé is unlikely to rise.

IT IS an opportunity for Abbas to save face by declaring his UN strategy succeeded because he got the negotiations he insists were his real goal all along.

Netanyahu has the most to lose. He can accept the French invitation and face the criticism of his rejectionist base – a small risk, since he’s riding high in the polls and hasn’t any real competition – or he can refuse to participate and face worsening international isolation.

The Likud may buy his explanation – “Negotiations will not be conducted with a Palestinian government half of which is Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks to destroy Israel” – but it can be a tough sell elsewhere.

Amb. Dennis Ross, the veteran White House Mideast envoy, reportedly told Jewish leaders last week that the Europeans “don’t believe the prime minister of Israel is serious” about making peace with the Palestinians.

Many will interpret Netanyahu’s rejection as one more missed opportunity. It could solidify support for a rarely used UN strategy to bypass the Security Council and bring wavering countries – like Britain and France – into the Palestinian column, leaving the United States once again isolated, a challenge for its international influence.

If the measure goes to the General Assembly for a non-binding vote, it is almost certain to get the support of two thirds of the 192 current members, and probably more.

Palestinians and their supporters will have new ammunition in their campaign to delegitimize Israel and advance the boycott/divestment/sanctions drive.

It could also be an excuse for extremists to justify intensified violence, and potentially a third intifada.

Without Israeli participation, the Paris meeting will go on, but as originally planned – a donor conference to raise money for the Palestinian Authority – and Abbas will come away looking like the peacemaker Netanyahu is afraid to negotiate with.

bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com


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