Step up, Mr. Abbas

Time for the PA president to test his skepticism.

abbas 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
abbas 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
It was a patently reluctant Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who, late last November, announced a 10-month freeze on new building starts at settlements in the West Bank.
Netanyahu was acting under intense US pressure to, almost literally, give ground to the Palestinians. Only days earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made her views on all settlement activity crystal-clear, declaring: “We would like to see everything ended forever.”
Ideally, from the American point of view, “everything” would have included a freeze in all building everywhere beyond the pre-1967 lines, including east Jerusalem, where Israel expanded its sovereignty after the Six Day War.
With an Israeli consensus behind him, including the opposition Kadima, Netanyahu resisted the pressure for an east Jerusalem halt – although in practice very little has been built even in Jewish post-1967 neighborhoods in the wake of March’s Ramat Shlomo dispute. But despite his ideological commitment to the settlement enterprise, he consented to the West Bank freeze, and his government has genuinely maintained it, with the goal of drawing the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.
Now, however, the 10 months are nearly up, and most, though not all, of the key figures in his government are advocating a resumption of building from September 26 – the resumption Netanyahu explicitly promised last November when he spoke of a “one-time, temporary” moratorium.
IN TERMS of the peace talks that the freeze was supposed to have enabled, little has changed since last November – far too little, in fact.
Rather than capitalize on the unprecedented Israeli government moratorium, enter direct talks, and make a serious effort to confront the thorniest issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, PA President Mahmoud Abbas allowed the months to slip by unutilized.
The indefatigable Obama administration peace envoy, George Mitchell, returned time and again to the region, mediating bizarre “proximity” talks between two leaderships that are located a short drive from one another, urging Abbas to enter a substantive direct framework, but to no avail. Until Netanyahu and President Barack Obama had their encouraging meeting at the White House earlier this month, Abbas may have been under the understandable impression that the US administration was going to continue to do his negotiating for him. Belatedly, he may now be realizing that this is not the case.
As Mitchell himself would doubtless acknowledge, Israeli-Palestinian peace will not be reached via indirect negotiations involving a Palestinian leadership that cannot bring itself into face-to-face contact with Israel.
Some 17 years of direct talks did not yield a permanent accord – largely because Yasser Arafat chose not to make his peace with Israel, and because Abbas has hitherto proved incapable of escaping from his predecessor’s malevolent shadow – but that direct framework, with US mediation, is the only realistic game in town.
The prime minister has stressed repeatedly, as the months have gone fruitlessly by, his desire to enter direct talks and tackle the core issues – “as early as next week,” he said again a few days ago, at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The Obama administration is strongly encouraging Abbas to respond in kind.
Unfortunately, the PA continues to drag its feet. And although Abbas used his recent visit to Washington to air certain conciliatory statements, including acknowledging the Jewish historical ties to Palestine, the months of proximity talks have seen a continuation of the relentless demonization and delegitimization of Israel in the PA’s own media – a process that must be reversed by any Palestinian leadership genuinely seeking reconciliation.
Without grandiose statements, Netanyahu is capable of focusing any new building in the West Bank in the months ahead on the settlement blocs where Israel intends to expand its sovereignty under a permanent accord, and to do so while maintaining the stability of his coalition.
Netanyahu is highly skeptical of Abbas’s peacemaking intentions. Unsurprisingly, Abbas is deeply skeptical of Netanyahu’s. The Israeli prime minister, however, is ready and willing to put such skepticism to the test, hoping to be proved wrong. It’s long overdue for Abbas to do the same.