We now have Mahmoud Abbas's answer regarding short-term Palestinian Authority strategy. He says that if Israel stops all construction now - in east Jerusalem and the 3,000 apartments being completed - and accepts in advance the 1967 borders, there will be peace within six months. This is the basic story we've been hearing since around 1988: One or more Israeli concessions and everyone will live happily ever after.
This is clearly bait being dangled for President Barack Obama, offering him an "easy" way out of his dilemma of not having any peace talks after almost a year in office: Pressure Israel to give up more and you will look good, with plenty of photo opportunities of you presiding over Israel-PA talks.
Of course, what Abbas wants to do is remove one of the main points of Israeli leverage, the borders to be agreed upon and the status of east Jerusalem. Moreover, he is leaving out both the additional demands he will be making (all Palestinians who want to can go live in Israel) and all the Israeli demands he will be ignoring (recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the end of the conflict and dropping all Palestinian claims, security guarantees, an unmilitarized Palestinian state, settling all refugees in Palestine).
In addition, of course, he can't speak for about half the people and territory he claims to represent; that is, the Gaza Strip. And by not holding elections and unilaterally extending his term, Abbas leaves the door open for some future Palestinian leadership saying he had no legitimate mandate to negotiate and therefore any agreement he made isn't binding.
Finally, he made one very big misstatement, hoping - as usual - that the West pays no attention to what's said in Arabic. He claimed that the PA stopped incitement against Israel, in terms of urging violence and rejecting Israel's existence. While the PA is, of course, far better than Hamas on such matters, a very large dossier can be compiled on how that is a lie.
THE QUESTION is what will the Obama administration do? Is it going to press Israel for further unilateral concessions so that the PA will agree to talks and Obama can call it a success? Will it try to get the PA to do something in terms of confidence-building measures or to talk without preconditions? Israel is certainly not going to accept the 1967 borders with absolutely no change before even talking with the PA (and probably not even as part of a peace agreement).
Indeed, it is now Obama administration policy that there need to be minor border modifications to accommodate the post-1967 changes on the ground. Moreover, Israel can say that if it stops all construction immediately, including in east Jerusalem, the PA still won't talk, so what's the point?
Incidentally, Abbas admitted that he never asked for an Israeli construction freeze before but is only doing so in the context of the road map. However, even after the road map, Abbas never made this a big issue until after Obama demanded a construction freeze. In objective terms, the president has no one to blame but himself for this mess, but of course he won't do that. He has to blame either Israel or the PA. Which will it be?
At the same time, there's a new trend worth noting in the West Bank and the PA: a sense of satisfaction. While the Western media generally reflect the rather false-front public relations' campaign waged by the PA - bitter, frustrated, victimized and eager for peace - that's not what's really going on right now.
Abbas's government has to weather some difficult politicking along the following lines:
â€¢ He has extended his own term in office indefinitely and cancelled January 2010 elections without receiving much criticism from within the PA. After all, Hamas won't let any balloting happen in the Gaza Strip and who knows which side might win a fair vote?
â€¢ The PA has been rounding up Hamas activists and maintaining security on the West Bank while - with a lot of help and some pressure from Israel - preventing cross-border attacks.
â€¢ The economy is doing well with relative prosperity in the West Bank, though this could collapse in hours if the PA lets violence reappear.
â€¢ Abbas has contained intensive criticism from his colleagues about his being too "soft" in his dealings with Obama.
â€¢ He has worked out a way to refuse negotiations while blaming it on Israel.
â€¢ No matter what the PA does, international media coverage, support from Europe and a lack of criticism from the US government seem assured.
THERE ARE plenty of things to be pleased about even though the peace process is dead, there's no realistic prospect of a state and Hamas looks set to govern the Gaza Strip forever.
What's really true - though often misunderstood in the West - is that a no war, no peace option suits the PA just fine right now. There is a question of whether hotheads among Abbas's colleagues, a Hamas sabotage or some accidental event will set off a new confrontation. Yet that doesn't seem too likely in the short- to medium-run.
Finally, while Fatah and the PA can't wean themselves - indeed, they aren't even trying - off a basic strategy whose main goal is destroying Israel some day, that doesn't mean they can't get along with Israel on a current basis. Behind the scenes, things aren't so bad.
Indeed, when Abbas speaks privately, he is likely to spend much of his time attacking Hamas and urging tougher sanctions on Iran. He knows who his real enemies are, even if most Western observers take him at his (public) word.