Washington Watch: Bibi to Abbas – Make my day

PA president has said that he will quit unless Israel agrees to freeze all settlement construction.

Talking Peace 311 (photo credit: lior Mizrahi (AP))
Talking Peace 311
(photo credit: lior Mizrahi (AP))
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has a Kissinger complex. We’ve lost count of how many times he has threatened to resign. Like the former secretary of state, he thinks he is indispensable.
In recent days Abbas has told the king of Jordan, the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Arab League leaders and the Obama administration that he will quit unless Israel agrees to freeze all settlement construction. No freeze, no talks.
It’s not hard to imagine Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s response: Go ahead, make my day.
Getting bogged down in preconditions rather than talks suggests that for all their words about wanting to return to the peace table, both leaders are more intent on finding a way out without being blamed for the collapse of new negotiations they never wanted.
I have the impression that both are convinced the other is bluffing and that if he holds out long enough, the other will fold. It’s hard to disagree with those who say this isn’t a peace process but a blame game.
If Abbas genuinely wants a Palestinian state, he needs to return to the table. An agreement on borders will make settlements a moot point.
And if Netanyahu is sincere about wanting the historic agreement he speaks of, he has an extremely generous American package of political, diplomatic and security benefits that more than justifies a two-month moratorium. And if his rejectionist coalition partners don’t like it, the centrist Kadima party is ready to replace them.
BY FOCUSING on settlements, both men avoid the real issues: borders, refugees, security and Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s excuse is that another moratorium would be political suicide, and Abbas insists he won’t talk without it. Thus each has given himself a reason to talk about talking but to avoid actually doing it.
Netanyahu said he froze (some) construction for 10 months but Abbas dithered for nine before even agreeing to meet him. Now when Abbas demands the moratorium be renewed, Netanyahu says he must first recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
That’s a nonstarter and Netanyahu knows it. It’s a transparent poison pill intended to set a condition he knows Abbas can’t meet, and further undermines chances for reconciliation.
If Abbas follows through on his threats to kill the talks, resign and dismantle the Palestinian Authority, who benefits?
• Hamas for starters. Negotiations won’t produce statehood, it argues. The only language the Zionists understand is the vocabulary of guns, rockets and suicide bombers. Force them out of the West Bank the way we forced them out of Gaza.
• Israel’s ultranationalists. Like bombastic Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, they argue that the status quo is fine and Israel should look for some interim arrangements for the next decade to let conditions for peace ripen – all the while expanding settlements to make a viable Palestinian state all but impossible.
• One-staters. Those who argue the solution is a single state don’t intend to share it with the other side.
• The I-told-you-so crowd on both sides. They refuse to accept that the other may have some legitimate grievances and needs.
• Netanyahu and Abbas. They get to avoid making tough decisions and uncomfortable compromises, while telling the world they tried to make peace but the other guy was intransigent.
The Israeli and Palestinian people will pay the highest price for failed leadership. Majorities on both sides tell pollsters they’re ready to accept two states. Most Israelis support a freeze on settlements, even if the extremists in the dysfunctional Netanyahu government don’t.
ANOTHER BIG loser is President Barack Obama, who made a settlement freeze a central demand of his Middle East policy, and even though he backed off somewhat he now can’t get the Palestinians to follow him.
He has stumbled into the Middle East shouk. He’s offering Netanyahu all kinds of deal sweeteners – we don’t know yet what he’s promising Abbas – yet the Israeli leader keeps asking the president to up the ante. Abbas has tipped his hand: He wants the US to negotiate with Israel in his stead.
And what will the American taxpayer get for all those expensive inducements for a two-month freeze (and this is only the down payment)? What will an actual peace treaty cost? Will the time come when it is necessary to replace some golden carrots with sticks?
But money is a peripheral issue; the big question is how can Israeli and Palestinian leaders insist they are intent on making peace while finding so many excuses to avoid it?
Despite rhetoric from both sides, the reality is that the US can’t want peace more than the Israelis and Palestinians (at least their leaders) do. Ignore the rhetoric; (in)action speaks louder than their words. Literally. Because the next sound you hear could well be gunfire.