A lesson from the Iranian play book

For years, Ahmadinejad has demonstrated how defiance can win points in the international arena – and the Palestinians are adopting this approach.

mahmoud abbas 311 (photo credit: AP)
mahmoud abbas 311
(photo credit: AP)
The Palestinian Authority tactic of consistently rejecting offers to resume peace negotiations is apparently yielding gains. The biggest reward so far came with the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden, the highest-ranking American official to come to Ramallah since president George W. Bush in January 2008. But despite American overtures, any Palestinian return to talks is dubious. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is more likely to try to leverage the Biden embrace to make more demands, while continuing to say no to the peace process.
Credit Abbas for employing a lesson in the Iranian play book. For years Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has demonstrated how defiance, combined with extraordinary patience, can win points in the international arena. Despite repeatedly spurning the UN Security Council, Iran was invited to sit at the same table in Vienna last October with the US, France, Great Britain and Russia to discuss its nuclear program. However, soon after Iran’s supposed agreement to export uranium for enrichment, Teheran returned to rejection, saying in word and action ‘no’ to ending its nuclear program.
Regarding the PA, adopting the Iranian approach is a more recent development. Abbas had engaged in talks with prime minister Ehud Olmert, and even traveled from Ramallah to Jerusalem to meet. But the PA suspended talks during Israel’s operation against Hamas in Gaza more than a year ago.
By the time Binyamin Netanyahu entered the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2009, Abbas was already looking internationally for solutions. The Obama administration’s ill-fated decision to press Israel publicly on settlements raised Palestinian expectations. So Netanyahu’s offers to resume direct talks, and his endorsement of a Palestinian state at Bar-Ilan University in June, were spurned.
THE ABSOLUTIST Palestinian demand for a complete halt to settlement construction was cemented at the Fatah party congress in August. But the US had eased away from insisting on a wholesale cessation of settlement activity. After all, both the Bush administration and Israeli-Palestinian negotiators had recognized that any final peace arrangement would involve some kind of territorial swap, with Israel retaining major settlement blocs and handing over some territory within its pre-1967 border.
Abbas remained adamant, refusing to return to negotiations that had been ongoing since the 1993 Oslo Accords. He rebuked Netanyahu’s announcement in November of a 10-month freeze on new settlement construction – a move the Obama administration welcomed and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “unprecedented.” By then, however, Abbas had announced his readiness to resign as PA president, fueling speculation about the future of democratic PA government.
Abbas ended up canceling the January 2010 elections. The PLO central council, which supersedes the PA’s authority, met in December to extend Abbas’s presidential term indefinitely, and endorse the “no negotiations until settlements are stopped” policy. Honest observers cannot deny that the responsibility for stalemating negotiations lies squarely with Abbas. Rather than negotiate a permanent agreement with Israel, he has traveled the globe mustering support for a unilateral declaration of statehood, which Prime Minister Salam Fayyad predicts will occur in 2011.
With Palestinian leaders refusing to sit with Israelis, and much of the Arab world ignoring Obama’s entreaties to approach  Israel, many Israelis are left wondering whether there is any chance to advance peace.
Just how fragile is the peace process was revealed by the coincidence of two highly-charged political developments during Biden’s visit. One was Israel’s announcement of a new housing project in Ramat Shlomo, a Jerusalem area claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. The other was the PA dedication of a public square in honor of Dalal Mughrabi, the female terrorist who led the 1978 massacre of 37 Israelis and an American photographer on the Coastal Road. The ceremony followed upon last summer’s Fatah affirmation of armed struggle – an implicit endorsement of terrorism. Though understandably painful for Israelis, no one suggested retracting peace-talk offers.
Abbas nonetheless is citing the Ramat Shlomo construction as thepretext to cancel the proximity talks even before they’ve begun, andhas solicited Arab League support for his defiant stance. We may neverknow if Abbas was planning to continue saying no to negotiations afterBiden returned to Washington. If not Ramat Shlomo, he could have foundanother excuse, for Abbas and other PA officials stubbornly persistwith a rejection tactic that has failed to bring tangible benefits tothe Palestinian people.
It’s time for the current Palestinian leadership to say yes  to peace.Abbas should show he has the courage of leadership, abandon theproposed indirect proximity talks and return to face-to-facenegotiations now.
The writer is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.