You may be surprised to know that direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have commenced. PA President Mahmoud Abbas was. Multiple sources told reporters Monday that Abbas became “enraged” after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly announced an invitation for direct talks without informing him beforehand. Abbas received four calls from the State Department after rumor spread that he would decline, ultimately talking him into agreement.
The incident perfectly captured the last four months of indirect negotiations - progress by force. While the Palestinians believe no progress has been made to warrant direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, America and Israel see victory in establishing direct talks without preconditions. Some Israeli officials have taken to boasting. And with Netanyahu’s own base threatened by radical settlers, Abbas has the look of a man being hauled up a volcano for sacrifice.
Though direct talks appear to be in motion, they may not last the “trial” month Abbas requested from the Arab League - let alone a whole year.
Contrary to general US opinion, President Barack Obama is pursuing an unrealistic, bias policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was harder to discern as he passionately outlined a Palestinian state during his campaign and first year in office, but increasing coercion towards Abbas reveals the true nature of US policy. Perhaps the situation will bounce in the White House’s favor, but success doesn’t seem possible in the current environment. The status quo favors Israel, thus direct negotiations without preconditions favor Israel.
The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found in July, “About 80% say the policy of the Obama Administration favors Israel while only 4% say it favors Palestinians.”
If America’s weight isn’t balanced then no agreement will be reached, especially in the tiny one-year window announced by US envoy George Mitchell. Yet Washington’s pressure has escalated despite the collateral damage against Abbas’s political base. For two weeks US officials insisted that direct talks were right around the corner, prompting skepticism from the Palestinian side. Israel appeared to successfully neutralize a Quartet statement reaffirming a settlement freeze in the West Bank.
Finally Clinton and Mitchell announced the format and date for direct talks, September 2nd, and left Abbas out of the loop until the news went public, trapping him into accepting. As usual he had been set up as the spoiler.
Meanwhile, in front of the curtains, the initial Palestinian reaction clashed with Washington’s rosy image. As the State Department website hailed direct talks as a breakthrough, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat downplayed negotiations without an extended settlement freeze due to expire September 20th. US officials continued touting direct talks as a go while Israel shot down all thoughts of preconditions. Netanyahu then took this opportunity to announce his own terms: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and a demilitarized Palestine.
After further uproar from Palestinian officials - Erekat called Netanyahu’s negotiation “dictation” - Netanyahu’s spokesman, Nir Hefez, responded he was only “emphasizing justifiably the importance of solid security arrangements and demilitarization.” But when Palestinians raise the issue of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, this precondition threatens peace.
With a rapid chain of events occurring over several days, one may think Washington would cool tensions and address grievances on the Palestinian side, but that isn’t the case. After Erekat repeated the Palestinians will decline to negotiate directly if Israel fails to extend a partial freeze on new West Bank settlements, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley herded the issue straight into direct talks.
"We're very mindful of the importance of the issue,” he told reporters. “It is within the negotiation. That's why we want to get the negotiation. None of these issues can be resolved outside of this negotiation. The direct negotiation begins on September 2nd. And you can rest assured that this will be among the topics discussed early on."
This logic makes sense on the US-Israeli side, but the Palestinians doubt that settlements will be decided in one month. While the White House more or less trusts Netanyahu, Palestinian officials justifiably don't and seek an agreement beforehand to empower their populace, in addition to protecting themselves. But according to Crowley direct talks have already begun; technically Monday’s negotiations can be seen within this framework. Crowley added, "We're now into direct negotiations; we expect that both parties will do everything within their power to create an environment for those negotiations to continue constructively."
So why isn’t America? Do Palestinians know that direct talks are on, or are US officials simply claiming so? Considering the propaganda campaign against the US people, Palestinians, and Abbas himself, US and Israeli officials appear to be feeding everyone else an incomplete picture. They’ve chosen an odd method to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. It’s true that direct negotiations offer the surest path towards finality, but only if these negotiations begin equal and not tilted towards Israel.
America has yet to apply that stability as a third party.
Perhaps Netanyahu will quickly trade a settlement freeze for Abbas’s recognition of a Jewish state, but Netanyahu's resistance indicates that he's unlikely to agree on a freeze inside or outside direct talks. Israel and America hope to avoid this dilemma by tossing scraps to the Palestinians, deepening their resentment. The Associated Press reported, “Israeli officials confirmed Monday that the government is in quiet talks with the United States in search of a ‘creative’ solution that will allow at least some limited construction to take place after Israel's 10-month moratorium ends on Sept. 26.”
Little wonder that Abbas expects direct talks to stall. Beyond Hamas, much of his own party has warned against entering what is considered an Israeli trap, and he’s doing what he can to survive between two cliffs. The situation rides heavily on whether Abbas, faced with the undeniable reality that he still needs Washington, submits to US pressure and essentially bows to Israel, or refuses to give up every last ounce of dignity. Abbas may yet surprise America; Ereket said that he delivered a letter from Abbas to the Quartet threatening to withdraw from negotiations if Israel’s settlement freeze isn't extended.
The letter was perceived as an, “attempt to reassure critics that he hasn’t abandoned his conditions for negotiating directly with Israel.” Wrote Abbas: “Settlements and peace are two parallels that don’t meet. If Israel continues with the settlement construction, we will withdraw from the talks.”
At this point US and Israeli officials would likely criticize Abbas for “obstructing peace.” They wouldn't act out of justice though, but of the need to totally reduce Abbas before direct talks in order to shield Netanyahu. Why Israel would do this makes partial sense, even though the strategy is counterproductive to long-term peace. America is also following a semi-logical plan if its goal is to protect Israel. But the strategy loses its mind if Obama, Clinton, Mitchell, and company are truly interested in a fair two-state solution.
“The Americans have forced us to drop all our preconditions,” said one PA official. “This makes us look bad in the eyes of our people.”
The Palestinians must be treated as equals in the peace process. Obama’s current policy towards them is one of exploitation, and no permanent two state-solution will come of it.