Benjamin Netanyahu will prove whether he really wants peace in the coming days. Obstinate as the Israeli Prime Minister is, even he must realize both the sweet nature of the Palestinians’ latest offer and the potential backlash from Israeli moderates. Hawks too. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s new preconditions for direct talks are probably as favorable as they’ll get for Israel.
"We have put forward to the Israelis our position on different final status issues, and especially on borders and security," Abbas told Al-Ghad, a Jordanian newspaper. "We have said that the borders need to be on a 1967 basis, with agreement on land swaps equal in value and size, and we gave our vision regarding security, which was agreed on previously, in Olmert's days. If they agree, we will consider that progress... and this would prompt us to go to direct negotiations.”
He also said Jordan and Egypt approved of his plan, a prerequisite for gaining the Arab League’s consent.
On the surface Abbas has given both parties what they want. By zeroing in on the borders, as Israel often argues, settlement zones theoretically become mappable and remove the condition of a settlement freeze. In practicality this situation favors Israel’s heavy presence on the ground.
NATO forces are similarly favorable to Israel. Many reports note that “Israel wants to maintain a presence in the Jordan valley along the West Bank's eastern border,” thus Netanyahu could reject Abbas’s offer. But Netanyahu is open to an international force and has referenced a NATO force before, as have many pro-Israeli officials in Washington, so in a way Abbas is disguising this compromise as a precondition so as to not appear weak.
Perhaps the most favorable opening Abbas created is shifting the onus back on Netanyahu.
Which way the dominoes fall will make or break his position. Frozen borders could create a de facto settlement freeze by allowing Israel to continue building in its own territory, so long as Israeli settlements in Palestinian land are deconstructed. The plan could also turn to chaos by stalling. Due to uncertainty in Israel, Abbas has no room to water down his offer any further without losing the necessary political and popular support. Fresh pushback against direct talks is already in motion.
Read any Arab newspaper and you’ll see numerous columns on “blackmailing the Palestinians,” Washington’s softness, and not giving in to the duplicitous Netanyahu. They’ve just witnessed Israel’s latest games in the flotilla probe and new settlements in East Jerusalem. US officials now wish to arm Israel to its limit, believing this helps Netanyahu make “tough decisions.” Palestinians, and Muslims in general, have no faith in America’s ability to retrain Israel if necessary. Meanwhile the EU leads Gaza’s crusade.
Speaking to local media on Friday, Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan said Abbas’s offer had been relayed to US envoy George Mitchell and that they were awaiting the US/Israeli response. He also voiced deep skepticism of Netanyahu and Obama.
“The Americans have failed to get Mr. Netanyahu to answer the Palestinian questions and now they want Mr. Mitchell to tell the president on Saturday to go to direct talks,” said Dahlan, leader of Fatah in Gaza. “We should tell Mitchell on Saturday to give these answers and not to jump into unknown and indefinite talks.”
Mitchell described his Saturday meeting with Abbas as candid and productive: "We are heartened by the discussions that we had here today and in the past several days." Said Dahlan, “Mitchell did not present any new Israeli answers."
This is Israel and America’s second to last chance at restarting direct talks before the UN Security Council convenes in September to debate Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians aren’t planning to decide on direct talks until early August, leaving one final attempt in the 11th hour, but Abbas’s dangerous position between US and Arab walls impedes his maneuverability. Obama must accept how low Netanyahu’s trust is instead of trying to sell him, and should be working furiously to persuade him into agreeing.
Not that Netanyahu should need motivating with Abbas’s terms - if he really wants peace.