Shifting Palestinian 'red lines'

Abbas’s agreement to proximity talks shows that he, too, will cave in if the pressure is high enough.

Moussa Abbas 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Moussa Abbas 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Amid all the well-placed pessimism accompanying the announcement of a restart of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, there is one truly significant element worth paying attention to: the Palestinians gave in on something.
Israelis, Palestinians and the world have become accustomed to Israel setting red lines, and then moving them.
Wasn’t it Ariel Sharon who said in 2001 that Gush Katif needed to be maintained as a security zone, only to uproot those same settlements in 2005?
Didn’t Ehud Olmert, as Jerusalem mayor, call on the government in 1996 to firmly state that it was not prepared to relinquish Jerusalem under any circumstances, only to offer Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 half the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, as well as an Israeli pledge to relinquishing sovereignty over the city’s “holy basin?”
And wasn’t it Binyamin Netanyahu who, at a Likud Central Committee meeting in 2002, said, “Dear friends, let me say this once again loud and clear: There will not be a Palestinian state west of the Jordan” – only to have embraced the “two-state vision” in 2009?
There is a pattern here. Israelis say things, but don’t mean them. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have set a track record of saying what they mean.
Prior to Oslo, the PLO said it wanted all of east Jerusalem, including the Old City, but nobody really believed they meant it, until they remained adamant – and remain adamant – on that demand to this day.
Prior to Oslo, the Palestinians insisted on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper, but nobody here thought they meant it, until the country woke up to this claim after Oslo and realized that they really did.
So when Abbas said for months and months that he would not enter into negotiations with Israel unless and until there was a full settlement freeze, including east Jerusalem, it seemed this was a firm Palestinian red line – not one of those pliable Israeli ones – and that he meant what he said.
Well, now we see the Palestinians can also move red lines, which is worth noting as some kind of talks resume.
Equally important is to understand that the reason Abbas was willing to move his red line was because he came under intense pressure from the US, certain elements inside the EU, and from Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan to start talks, even though all his conditions were not met.
The valuable lesson here: The Palestinians, too, and not only Israel, are susceptible to pressure.
Why is this important?
Because the way the diplomatic calendar is set up, the four months the Palestinians have given the proximity talks to bear fruit will – if the talks begin this month – end in July, two months before the 10-month settlement housing–start moratorium that Netanyahu declared in November is set to expire.
One need not be clairvoyant to envision the following scenario: at the end of the four-month period, the Palestinians will say that they will only give the proximity talks more time, or go into direct talks, if Netanyahu expands the existing moratorium to include east Jerusalem, or – at the very least – extends the current one.
To make the situation for Israel even trickier, at about the same time, the Goldstone Commission report will bite us yet again, since the end of July is the deadline by which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has to report back to the General Assembly on Israeli and Palestinian internal investigations on the war crimes allegations in that report.
One again does not have to be psychic to imagine that certain countries – namely European ones – are likely to link their vote on this matter to whether or not Israel extends its construction moratorium.
Which doesn’t mean, by the way, that Israel will have to fold and extend the freeze. This will depend on the level of pressure coming from the Obama administration.
With the US going to midterm elections in November, it is difficult to imagine Washington coming down extremely hard on Israel just before those elections. As to after the elections, the elbowing in the US for the 2012 presidential race will be commencing, and it will be more difficult for US President Barack Obama to come down too heavily on Jerusalem.
There is, of course, another option: that the US, EU, Egypt and Jordando what they did this time around, and pressure the Palestinians tostay in the diplomatic game.
What the PA’s recent decision toenter talks – even though Abbas vowed for months that he would not –indicates, is that pressure on the Palestinians can also yield results.