Washington Watch: Playing ball at the peace table

If the Palestinian-Israeli peace process were a basketball game, both sides would be called for stalling. There’s a lot of trash talk going on, but no serious action.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
If the Palestinian-Israeli peace process were a basketball game, both sides would be called for stalling. There’s a lot of trash talk going on, but no serious action.
But it isn’t a basketball game, it’s a blame game. Neither side seems seriously interested in returning to the peace table, just in going through the motions to impress the fans.
It’s a lot like last week’s budget battle between Republicans and Democrats; the real issue wasn’t what good we can achieve for the country, but who is going to get blamed when it all goes south.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Binyamin Netanyahu has called his partner for peace, says he won’t talk with the prime minister until he freezes all construction, including in Jerusalem, and agrees that the 1949 armistice lines will be the basis for negotiating borders.
“You kill, we build” became Netanyahu’s motto after last month’s brutal murders of a settler family. Moreover, he won’t agree to the 1949 lines as a reference point, because that would cost him his best bargaining chip.
Both leaders are bluffing and both know it, but neither is interested in calling the other out.
Abbas’s real strategy isn’t to coax Bibi to the table, but to bypass him entirely by going to the UN General Assembly in September to seek full membership for the State of Palestine. He has the votes in a lopsided GA, but knows that this strategy risks fatally damaging any negotiated agreement – the only solution Israel is likely to recognize.
To foil Abbas’s plan, Netanyahu is coming to Washington next month to speak to the annual AIPAC policy conference, and he may also address the Congress. Both will give him friendlier receptions than he can expect at the UN or even the Knesset, where support for vigorous Israeli pursuit of peace appears greater than on Capitol Hill. That may explain why he is reportedly planning to unveil his peace initiative in the US, where he won’t get hammered from the Right for even raising the subject and from the Left for being too timid.
Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit says Israel needs “a preemptive diplomatic strike” to head off international recognition of a Palestinian state. He sees Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak standing dumbfounded on the deck of the Titanic, steering it directly into the iceberg.
“History will have no mercy on anyone who doesn’t act now,” he says.
NETANYAHU FACES growing pressure at home and abroad to prove his talk about wanting peace is more than empty rhetoric.
He has told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he is preparing his own peace initiative, and President Shimon Peres played advance man when he lunched at the White House last week with President Barack Obama to assure him Netanyahu is serious.
No one, probably not even Netanyahu himself, knows exactly what he will unveil in Washington, but reports out of the prime minister’s circle and other Jerusalem sources suggest some likely elements.
He’ll open with the usual rhetoric: “Nobody wants peace more than I do, and I’m ready to sit down and talk unconditionally, but I can’t when the other side refuses, demands all the concessions in advance, does nothing about incitement and can’t even decide who’s in charge, the moderates or the terrorists. And don’t forget, the whole Arab world is in turmoil, and that requires caution and not hasty decisions. Iran still wants to wipe us off the map. We can’t make peace with a bifurcated Palestinian movement, but a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation will kill any chances for peace.”
Details will be sparse. Look for an offer of limited transfer of territory to the PA (a fraction of the 90+ percent offered by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert), redeployment of troops from large parts of the West Bank, greater responsibility for PA security forces, a long-term IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, removal of some illegal outposts but no settlements, and recognition of a provisional Palestinian state with limited sovereignty and interim borders, with final status to be discussed after an extended period of adjustment.
It will be promptly rejected by the Palestinians and almost everyone else as too little, too late. And Netanyahu knows it.
Bibi’s strongest card is Abbas’s refusal to accept his offer of immediate, unconditional talks, but the Palestinian leader can shrug that off because he has seen Israel’s international standing plummet on Netanyahu’s watch, and that can’t be blamed on Obama, Iran, the Arabs, jihadists or European anti-Semites.
It is no secret that Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama and other world leaders seriously question whether Netanyahu is serious about making peace.
He needs to change their minds if he expects them to reject Palestinian unilateral moves at the United Nations in September. Obama has already declared his strong opposition to Abbas taking the UN route, but will he want to stand alone? Moreover, Netanyahu calculates Obama is preoccupied with two-and-a-half wars abroad, a bigger budget battle at home and a tough election coming up, so he won’t have the time or inclination to make any dramatic moves on the peace front much before 2013.
He may be overconfident.
“Time is not on Israel’s side,” warned former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. “This would be a good time for the Israeli leadership to take the initiative.”
ADL National Director Abe Foxman agreed: “Ninety percent of American Jews would want the prime minister to take some kind of initiative.”
In other words, stop stalling. It’s time for a full-court press.