Editor's Notes: Does Abbas want a deal?

If so, why was he so reluctant to enter direct talks, and why is he already so keen to leave them?

Abbas Olmert 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Abbas Olmert 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The assessment within Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s circle is unanimous: He doesn’t want to do it, he shouldn’t need to do it and he won’t do it.
Netanyahu can’t, after vowing last November that the 10- month freeze on housing starts at West Bank settlements was a “one-time, temporary” moratorium, now come out and say, “Well, actually, it’s not quite a one-time, temporary thing, after all. It’s more of a twotime, or maybe even a three- or four-time, semi-permanent kind of thing.”
Forget it, those close to the prime minister indicate. It’s not going to happen. All manner of informal arrangements might be possible, but formally extending the freeze would destroy any last vestiges of trust Netanyahu still enjoys on the pro-settlement Right. And it would make him a bit of laughing stock all the way across the spectrum. The prime minister whose words are worthless.
The prime minister of capitulation.
The Americans aren’t so sure.
Netanyahu was so anxious to get talking with the Palestinian Authority, they reason, that he won’t easily let PA President Mahmoud Abbas leave the negotiating table. They’re certainly going to urge him to extend the freeze, especially given that he has Kadima to call on for support if he loses some of the Right in the process. The Americans might even succeed – if, that is, Netanyahu proves susceptible to another bout of White House pressure. Or if (less probably) he has undergone a far more radical political shift than suggested even by his relentless public assertions of a profound desire for a deal. He did act decisively early last month to block legislation that would have given the Knesset authority over future freezes.
But the Palestinians, often much better at reading Israel’s politics than the Americans, are betting against it. They’re betting that, come September 26, the freeze will melt, and the pressure – the pressure, that is, for progress at the direct peace talks they are so reluctantly about to enter with Israel – will be off them.
They’ve only got to stall for another few weeks, and Israel will be in the dock again.
UNTIL THIS week, for Abbas, it had been a breeze. For almost nine months, he’d wriggled easily out of the Israeli, American and international direct-talks embraces. At first, he didn’t really need to do anything.
He was able to relax as the months went by and the US and Israel simmered in bitter acrimony.
Washington and Jerusalem went head-to-head over housing: The Obama administration bristled at Netanyahu’s refusal to halt all construction over the Green Line in east Jerusalem, and in March tried to use routine new Ramat Shlomo construction plans as leverage, going so far as to publicly question Israel’s commitment to its strategic alliance with the US. Netanyahu, conscious of the support of the Israeli mainstream for building in east Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods, refused to budge. And Abbas sat back contentedly.
After the American president and the Israeli prime minister belatedly began patching up their differences last month, it got a little trickier for Abbas to stay away from the face-to-face talks. Netanyahu was honoring the freeze – which has formally halted construction in the West Bank and informally impacted on building in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, too.
And the West Bank economy was demonstrably improving, in part because of Israel’s eased restrictions.
Still, Abbas managed to stave off the unwanted direct contact for a few more weeks.
Netanyahu pledged a readiness for negotiations anywhere, right away, with no preconditions.
Netanyahu hinted at possible flexibility down the road regarding security arrangements in the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu admitted a tentative readiness to reconsider the status of Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. But Abbas would not be moved.
Among his preconditions for looking Netanyahu in the eye across the negotiating table, Abbas variously insisted on an ongoing and expanded settlement freeze, advance word on Netanyahu’s stance relating to border and security issues, and a commitment that any territorial adjustments would be made on the basis of the pre- 1967 lines. The Americans ratcheted up the pressure, but Abbas was unfazed.
Last weekend, though, the US pulled the rug out from under him. To his considerable dismay, according to Abbas officials who spoke to our Palestinian Affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh this week, he learned that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was about to issue invitations for a ceremonial opening of direct talks without so much as informing him in advance. He contemplated rejecting the invitation, but evidently concluded that picking so public a fight with the Obama administration would backfire. So he grudgingly accepted, secure in the assessment that Netanyahu will get him off the hook by ending the freeze next month.
“If Israel continues with the settlement construction, we will withdraw from the talks,” he made clear in a letter dashed off to the Quartet.
ABBAS HAS worked hard in recent months to try to correct the damaging impression he had previously given the watching world, notably in a Washington Post interview in May of last year, that he isn’t in much of a hurry for a permanent peace accord with Israel.
In that interview, he had declared that “the gaps” between former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s proposals and his own positions were “too wide,” and indicated that he felt time was on the side of the Palestinians.
Since then, in meetings in the US, including with Jewish leaders, and in Israeli media contacts, Abbas has declared a firm desire for an accord based on two states living side by side in peace. He has acknowledged the Jews’ “history” in Palestine.
And those around him, along with those sympathetic to him on the Israeli side, have claimed that he didn’t really pass up Olmert’s peace offer because there was no genuine, properly formulated offer – just hurriedly presented proposals from a prime minister who was about to step down.
Which begs the central question now: Since the PA leadership is being wooed by an Israeli prime minister with a strong coalition, a high degree of popularity, a credible capacity to deliver on any deal and a declared commitment to an independent Palestinian state, why has Abbas had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the direct talks framework? Is it because he mistrusts Netanyahu’s intentions? Well, few Israelis can credibly claim to know where exactly the prime minister is headed. But Netanyahu said again this week that he was determined to “surprise all the critics and the skeptics.” Surely the best way to put him to the test is at the negotiating table.
Is it because he is cowed by the hostility to Israel among his own people? Well, that’s a phenomenon he could have sought to confront if he’d wanted to, by energetically advancing the cause of reconciliation – for starters by stopping his own PA’s glorification of Palestinian “martyrs” and by tackling the demonization of Israel in the PA’s own media.
Is it truly because Netanyahu won’t pledge to maintain the settlement moratorium? That doesn’t square with Abbas’s behavior since last November.
For if the PA chief had really wanted talks, he wouldn’t have spent the last nine months, when the freeze was biting, avoiding them. Even now, he knows that Netanyahu could be prevailed upon to informally maintain at least a partial moratorium – limiting building to settlements in areas Israel would anticipate retaining under a permanent accord.
And a renewal of building solely in the blocs should not be a disaster for an Abbas who genuinely seeks peace. It does not contradict his stated willingness for an accord that provides for territorial swaps. And his consent to such an arrangement would bolster the credibility of the negotiating process among skeptical Israelis, thereby raising the prospects of a deal.
A slightly more plausible explanation for Abbas’s disinclination to go into the talks and for his evident desire to quickly find a way to back out of them might be that he anticipates Barack Obama – whether staring at a bleak future after humiliation in the November midterm elections, or reinvigorated by an unexpectedly strong Democratic showing – seeking to impose a more favorable deal, with widespread international support, sometime around year three of his presidency.
But if that were Abbas’s thinking, he would probably be mistaken. The notion of the Obama presidency trying to impose a deal if negotiations can’t make progress is not at all far-fetched. The idea that it would be particularly dissimilar to the Clinton parameters is more improbable. And the notion that the Israeli public would sign on for an imposed deal of that nature is remote.
Maybe, just maybe, with an American president it really trusted, and a Palestinian leadership it had come to regard as genuinely committed to long-term peace, the Israeli mainstream would contemplate the idea of relinquishing almost all of Judea and Samaria and, still more dramatically, the division of Jerusalem, including the Old City, into areas of Israeli and Palestinian control. Maybe, just maybe, the Israeli mainstream would have gone along with the idea 10 years ago, before the second intifada had demonstrated the vicious extent of Yasser Arafat’s duplicity, and before the Hamas takeover of Gaza had demonstrated what can happen when territory is relinquished in the absence of a genuine accord. Maybe, just maybe, a few years from now, amid a continuation of the relatively benign current security environment, and at the end of demonstrably good faith negotiations.
But a Clinton-style deal under an Obama presidency regarded with wariness, to put it mildly, by Israel? And with a Palestinian leadership still allowing its media to incite relentlessly against Israel, a leadership balking at the very idea of negotiating in the same room as the Israeli government? That’s almost out of the question, however much mainstream Israel mistrusts the status quo and believes that time is working against us.
All of which, again, the Palestinians, with their savvy understanding of the Israeli mind-set, doubtless fully understand.
BUT IF Abbas’s absent enthusiasm for direct talks isn’t a function of his mistrust of Netanyahu, or of the ongoing hostility to Israel he has allowed to fester among his people, or of the settlement freeze’s imminent expiration, or of an assessment that the US might be able to impose a more favorable deal down the line, then why did he stay away for so long, and why is he so keen to get away again now?
Could it be, as the Israeli pessimists say – pessimists not only on the traditional Israeli Right, but deep into the mainstream, too – that Abbas, though he may be better intentioned than the duplicitous Arafat, is too weak-willed to have confronted Arafat’s malevolent legacy, and is terrified of a vicious domestic backlash, led by Hamas but including Fatah loyalists, too, for the crime of negotiating a viable deal? Is it also that he’s betting on Palestinian fertility, unreconstructed regional opposition to the very fact of Israel’s existence, and growing international delegitimation of Israel, ultimately sparing the Palestinians the need for significant concessions? And does he believe that the international community will eventually legitimize the state of Palestine that his Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad is steadily constructing, without the need for a negotiated settlement that, unpalatably, recognizes Israel – without the need for reconciliation and a formal end to our decades of conflict?
Not at all, his defenders would doubtless chorus.
He really, truly, genuinely, honestly wants an accord.
If so, he’s following a curious path toward getting one.