Perhaps step backward will move peace forward

Abbas's face-saving solution for his weakness came from George Mitchell and his idea of indirect talks.

abbas mitchell 311 (photo credit: AP)
abbas mitchell 311
(photo credit: AP)
Israelis and Palestinians are about to take a giant step backward that just might help them move toward peace.
After more than 16 years of face-to-face negotiations, they are about to revert to indirect talks through an American mediator. It is a sign of the lack of trust between the two adversaries, as well as their lack of a real commitment to what used to be called the “peace process.” Neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is willing or able to make the historic compromises required for signing a peace treaty. But it is in their interests to appear as if they are.
Before any talks can begin, Abbas needs help getting down from the limb he crawled out on – with American encouragement. He has refused any direct negotiations unless Israel meets his – and temporarily the Obama administration’s – demand for a total construction freeze beyond the 1967 border.
It soon became obvious that was a nonstarter, but Abbas couldn’t retreat without appearing weak and indecisive – which he actually is. So he needed a face-saving solution, and US peace envoy George Mitchell came up with it – indirect talks.
THAT WOULD mean turning the clock back on 16 years of direct negotiations, but the fact that all three parties are happy to go along suggests prospects for progress are dim. Nonetheless, there’s something in it for everyone:
• Abbas can insist he is not compromising on his unrealistic demands because those apply to direct talks, and these are at a lower level.
• Netanyahu can reverse the drop in his and Israel’s international stature by grabbing the mantle of peacemaker while assuring the hard-liners in his government that he has made no new concessions to get the Palestinians to the table.
• US President Barack Obama can show his Middle East policy isn’t a total flop.
Abbas has been under pressure from the Americans, Europeans and Arabs to break the stalemate and find a path to the negotiating table. In return, he is expected to get a package of Israeli goodwill gestures – reportedly including the release of some Palestinian prisoners, the transfer of additional West Bank areas to PA control, the reopening of Palestinian offices in east Jerusalem and a halt in incursions into Palestinian cities. The Obama administration has had less luck arranging some reciprocal gestures from various Arab states to encourage more Israeli concessions.
Palestinian sources say the proximity talks could begin as early as February 20 and last three to four months, with Mitchell shuttling between the teams.
Abbas has been complaining a lot recently that Obama isn’t putting enough pressure on Israel; he wants the administration to declare its positions on final-status issues – refugees, Jerusalem and borders – and provide assurances of what it will do if Israel does not agree, PA officials have been telling reporters.
That would be an incentive for him to run out the clock and then demand Obama force Israel to accept those terms. That’s an obvious nonstarter for Israel – one more excuse by Abbas to avoid negotiations.
That appeared to be on Netanyahu’s mind when he told his cabinet this week: “We will not enter into negotiations when everything is known in advance.” Returning to high-level negotiations is risky for all three parties because they will be raising expectations, even though the likelihood of a breakthrough is slim. There will be a high price to pay for failure, from the loss of public trust to possible war. Palestinians can no more get the US to force their terms on Israel than Israel can get away with stalling endlessly in the hope that everyone will just leave it alone.
Hamas remains a major obstacle. Abbas nominally speaks for the West Bank, but his authority is rejected in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Assuming he could reach an agreement with Israel, he couldn’t implement it in Gaza, where he dare not even set foot.
Netanyahu has told Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos he has “no problem with proximity talks or indirect negotiations” if they provide Abbas “a ladder that will enable [him] to climb down from the tree, and as a corridor that will lead to high-level talks.”
Much will depend on whether the Obama administration genuinely regardsthe new talks as the first step toward reviving the peace process – orsimply as a face-saving gesture and holding action after its initiallyinflated expectations were dashed against harsh Middle East realities.
So far the signs are far from clear.