Parties are being planned for Cairo or Washington, or maybe Jerusalem. The locations are booked and undergoing decoration. All the guests have submitted their RSVP - government luminaries, reporters, analysts. There’s just one question mark - will the hosts show?
US and Israeli officials have spoken the whole week as if direct talks were signed and delivered. 48 hours they told us last Monday. Wednesday passed without event, then again 48 hours until a Quartet announcement and Palestinian confirmation of direct talks. This Monday for sure. In a world where delay and stalemate are indigenous species, US officials are still counting peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before it hatches.
And the cost may be more than America bargained for.
Instead of those “obstructionist” Palestinians scuttling direct talks, which would have played right in the Israeli and US media, Israel may end up casting the deciding veto. The Quartet’s message in question calls for Israel to extend the construction moratorium in the West Bank's Jewish settlements, agree to a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders and limit the negotiations to two years. As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas uses the Arab League to grant his actions legitimacy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his inner cabinet to reject any precondition to direct talks.
Said a senior government source, "the Quartet announcement could serve as camouflage for Palestinian preconditions, and that is unacceptable."
Every party’s position is straightforward. The Palestinian Authority (PA) will lose popular support for entering direct talks on Israel’s terms, undermining its credibility and potentially boosting Palestinian militants. But despite a potential loss of face, Palestinian officials have reportedly softened on a real settlement “freeze,” settling for a moral victory: “a statement by the Quartet that Israel should not be building in West Bank settlements.”
Having reduced the Palestinians to nearly nothing, Israel see no point in letting up now and are going for the kill. And with Netanyahu likely to try and flip his rejection back on Abbas, more pressure from Washington can be expected too. Weapons to Lebanon and Turkey have been threatened because of their relationship with Israel. If forced to pick between Israel and the Palestinians, America - government and people - won’t choose the latter.
Late Sunday night, Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP that the PA prefers to wait for a US statement if Israel didn’t accept the Quartet’s. “There has been progress up to this point," he said, in line with US optimism. But the US declaration, “will apparently not set any preconditions for the launching of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
Not only has America taken direct talks for granted, but more importantly the Palestinians themselves. Obama’s Muslim “outreach” has evaporated into indirect threats of limiting US support for the PA. Last week Abbas claimed that US pressure is impossible to bear, his dramatics verified by a cascade of reports alleging a Palestinian green-light. But these reports usually contain the Palestinian position that direct talks have a price.
Washington has given little consideration to Netanyahu’s historic unpopularity and overpowering distrust with Palestinians. The US position equates to borderline extortion, making Palestinians feel as though America cannot be lost as ally and that it’s the only power capable of restraining Israel. In fact direct talks will begin under Israel’s terms. Abbas need a settlement freeze, pre-1967 borders at the least, to enter direct talks, and Netanyahu has given him nothing.
Why the Palestinians need preconditions is heatedly debated. With the status quo inherently favoring Israel, pre-conditions are the Palestinian's method of leveling the negotiating table. So the US position of no pre-conditions equals a position of Israeli advantage.
A risk assessment doesn’t seem to have been undertaken on a key dilemma: is the postponement of direct talks more or less damaging than their collapse? Although direct talks, as US and Israeli officials like to say, are the only means to officially resolve the conflict, preparing indirect talks for legitimate direct talks is the wiser course. Speeding leads to a crash; taking Palestinians for granted and jeopardizing their constituency in favor of Israel’s could spoil any final-status agreement.
An admittedly tight rope to walk, bias towards either side risks immediate stalemate. Two years is an underestimation as it is. Predicting when Obama personally intervenes with his own peace plan isn’t so easy, if he has one, but he’s running out of time and goodwill. Is post-November really the smart political play?
Or will taking the Congressional election for granted put Obama, and by extension the peace process, in a deeper hole?