Analysis: A partial freeze might not be enough for Abbas

All the signs are that Abbas would be content to walk away from direct talks, especially if he could cite settlement-building as the cause.

At a glacial pace, day by excruciating day, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are moving toward the resumption of direct talks – face-to-face negotiations on substantive issues.
Israel’s position, as repeatedly expressed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has been a desire to get down to business, with all the knottiest issues on the table but without preconditions, as soon as possible.
The Palestinian Authority, under President Mahmoud Abbas, has been resistant, seeking instead to achieve favorable terms of reference for the direct talks, including Israeli acknowledgment of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations over the borders of Palestine, and the extension and widening of the current settlement freeze.
One side keen on progress, and the other dragging its feet? That’s an imbalance that favors the Palestinians.
Still, Abbas now knows that he’s not going to get all the negotiating terms he sought. And, under American pressure, he was consulting on Thursday with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah about finally bowing to the inevitable.
Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Shas’s Eli Yishai, a deputy prime minister and member of the “septet” inner circle of key ministers, assessed that on the issue of the freeze, Netanyahu might incline toward what could be considered a middle-path solution. Whether formally or informally, Yishai suggested, the government might opt to limit new construction, when the current 10-month moratorium lapses in late September, to the settlement blocs – areas such as the Etzion Bloc and Ma’aleh Adumim, which Israel anticipates annexing as part of territorial swap arrangements in a permanent accord.
This course of action was first proposed two months ago by Yishai’s dovish fellow septet member Dan Meridor, and was evidently conceived as a possible means to meet two goals: keep the coalition intact and avoid alienating the Palestinians.
Yishai made plain to the Post that he and his party would not be particularly happy with such a decision, and would ideally want building to resume at settlements throughout Judea and Samaria. But he also gave no hint that this kind of middle path would prompt a coalition crisis – thereby satisfying the first of Meridor’s two goals.
But is the second goal similarly attainable? Would the Palestinians stay at the negotiating table if Israel resumed building, even if such building was only taking place inside the settlement blocs? Saeb Erekat, the chief PA negotiator, indicated that they would not. Indeed, the PA, he emphasized this week, was seeking “a cessation of settlement construction” not only in the West Bank, but in Jerusalem as well.
While the Israeli government, in other words, may want to believe that continuing the freeze but limiting its scope would constitute a further step toward the Palestinians, the Palestinians have other ideas entirely. A more limited freeze? Absolutely not. They want the moratorium maintained everywhere it applies today, and they want it widened.
What might the Americans make of all this? Well, having spent weeks and months trying to drag Abbas to the direct talks – as a perceived American and Israeli interest – they would doubtless be dismayed were that fragile achievement to be jeopardized from the get-go.
If the talks get started in late August or early September, but are immediately threatened by the vexed issue of the freeze, they might suggest that both the Israelis and the Palestinians reevaluate their positions. They might ask Netanyahu and Abbas whether they really want to scupper the precious opportunity.
And how would the two sides respond? All the signs are that Abbas would not be particularly unhappy to walk away from the direct talks, especially if he could cite Netanyahu’s settlement-building intransigence as the cause. He could expect to garner considerable international sympathy.
And all the signs are that Netanyahu, who has been so anxious to get Abbas to the talks, would be uncomfortable to see him walk away, least of all over the contentious issue of settlements.
There’s that imbalance again.
But how would Netanyahu keep Abbas at the negotiating table, if even the “middle path” partial West Bank freeze, proposed by Meridor and reluctantly acknowledged by Yishai, proves insufficient? Would he be prepared to offer more? Could he?