Mahmoud Abbas, acting president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), seems to have an infinite number of reasons to disengage from US-sponsored negotiations with Israel. Reduced to a singularity, Palestinians possess little trust in America to negotiate an equal two-state solution and none in Israel. But Abbas wisely chose to await a special Arab League meeting, scheduled for October 4th, before deciding the near-term fate of direct talks with his counterpart, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Although Abbas is talking a tougher game since Israel’s settlement “freeze” in the West Bank expired, he can’t move either way without covering fire.
"We don't want to stop the talks, but if the building continues, we will have to put a stop to them," Abbas told radio station Europe 1. "(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu must know that peace is more important than settlements. We ask for a moratorium during negotiations, because as long as there are negotiations, there is hope.”
The Arab League now stands in the ironic position to cease direct talks after President Barack Obama and other US officials exhorted Arab states to “do more.” Technically they would fulfill this request by standing up for the Palestinians. Just as Abbas shielded himself with the Arab League to enter direct talks, he’s using it to potentially extract himself from Israel’s trap. Pulling out immediately would have risked another of trap, and so sweating out Netanyahu for a week offers Abbas and the Palestinians the smartest option available.
"We will not react quickly," Abbas said. "We will study all the consequences with Arab countries, with the Palestinian leadership.”
However, the Palestinians must draw their line and withdraw under Arab support if Israel and America don’t alter their behavior. With Washington’s hourglass almost empty, US envoy George Mitchell deployed to the region for a week’s worth of negotiating - and he’ll probably need every second. Netanyahu had already spoken at length with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as Mitchell prepared himself for departure. According to one Israeli source, Netanyahu was not impressed by US proposals for a partial freeze and “did not give a positive response.”
Another European diplomat told The Haaretz that Netanyahu explicitly declared large settlement blocs off limits to US officials, and spoke of at least one 2,000 unit that plans to go ahead with construction.
Both sides of any negotiation wish to create favorable terms, but this conflict of interests becomes especially problematic between the two vastly disproportionate parties. While the Palestinians know they lag behind Israel and are exhausting themselves to catch up, Israel is protecting its lead by keeping Palestinians down. Not exactly the spirit of peace. Aware that Netanyahu will throw Abbas to the wolves, the Palestinians have easily surmised how emboldened Netanyahu would become were he to “win” the first standoff.
Lopsided terms would continue throughout negotiations.
Though Abbas is demanding a total suspension of construction on principle, his real asking price is presumably much lower. Requesting a three or four month extension to finalize border arrangements, Abbas would likely accept a partial freeze if Netanyahu offered a sincere compromise. He already took less since Netanyahu froze only new construction, which even then trickled on according to the Palestinians and Israeli activist groups. Now Arab owners are being evicted in Israeli courts, and a variety of minor projects could add up quickly.
These events poison the negotiation’s atmosphere.
For Abbas, a “freeze” provides the bare minimum of public support to continue talks; support without one drops to single digits. A “freeze” represents confidence in Israel’s seriousness of towards a Palestinian state. Feeling his own pressure from the right, Netanyahu believes he might crumble his power-base by extending limitations on settlement construction. But his argument is overblown. Led by a supportive Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu doesn’t face in Israel’s moderate opposition the same danger as Abbas, who could lose not just half but all of his support to continue direct talks.
The Palestinians would guarantee an unbalanced two-state solution by caving now, which again cannot be said if Israel extended its “freeze.”
Israel’s attitude in denying Washington and the PA, while subsequently accusing the Palestinians of obstruction, has become its own grievance. There’s a difference between giving freely and begrudgingly, and the latter doesn’t inspire confidence like halting settlement activity it meant to do. Of course Israel’s behavior has also been predicted by countless observers, and another crisis of confidence could have been averted had Washington applied real pressure on Netanyahu before the deadline expired. Yet after stumbling through several failed rounds of indirect talks and still believing the Palestinians could be pushed over, Washington left one month to finalize a settlement agreement and unsurprisingly fell short.
Once more appearing unprepared, the White House was rescued from total embarrassment by Abbas’s grace period. The Obama administration’s fundamental dilemma - a pro-Israeli tilt - has hampered and slowed the entire peace process.
Actions haven’t come close to matching his optimistic rhetoric of a Palestinian state, having installed numerous Israeli advocates to Middle East advisory positions. His initial hope is better understood through the chronic negation of past US presidents and what is becoming a hollow speech in Cairo. Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly provides the most recent example of continual Israeli bias, although his 2008 AIPAC speech offers the clearest.
Claiming that, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” Abbas replied, "This statement is totally rejected.” Obama later retracted his statement claiming the two sides must negotiate Jerusalem’s future, but his words lurk in the back of the Palestinians’ minds.
And because of an overwhelmingly pro-Israeli Congress and US public, Obama isn’t positioned to take the risks for peace that he asks of Netanyahu and Abbas. 87 US Senators recently ignored Netanyahu’s settlement dilemma and urged the Palestinians to remain in negotiations.
In a letter to Obama, the Senators argued, "Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants at the start of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not abandon the talks. Instead - after forcefully condemning the attack – he reached out to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saying, 'You are my partner for peace. Peace begins with leaders.' We agree with the Prime Minister, and we also agree with you that it is critical that all sides stay at the table.”
But in foresight or retrospect, negotiations had little chance of overcoming the present obstacle without a change of strategy on Washington’s part. Obama even expects a deal within one year after every US initiative suffered delays. Direct talks would progress more efficiently if Washington, particularly Obama, stopped playing politics with Israel and the Palestinians and started mediating the crisis.
The imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, who consistently polls as Fatah’s most popular leader, accurately explained, "Obama's efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not succeeded up to now. If the US will continue to favor Israel without pressuring it to end the occupation and return to 1967 borders, peace efforts will fail.”
Barring a change in the environment, the risks are too great for Abbas to remain in direct negotiations with Netanyahu. However a premature withdrawal would cause new damage. The difference between Mondays could very well determine perceptions if direct talks do collapse. A reactionary move locks the Palestinians in Washington’s doghouse and Netanyahu’s trap to scapegoat Abbas, who in turn could jeopardize his consolidating European support.
Wait a week and the whole situation could reverse. Moderate Israeli elements may begin to feel the heat and apply pressure on Netanyahu to strike a compromise with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s bravado must be quelled during the initial phase of negotiations for strategic purposes, but done right and he can be set up for a potential fall too. Lapsing the settlement “freeze” drew a soft warning from Washington, no small feat in itself.
"We are disappointed but we remain focused on our long-term objective and we will be talking to the parties about the implications of the Israeli decision," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in New York.
The UN and EU, responding to their pro-Palestinian demographics, piled on similar concern. These channels have isolated Washington, leaving no choice but to defend the Palestinian side for once. And this trend stands to increase if Abbas remains open to compromise and Netanyahu stonewalls.
A week is also the least he could use to sort out Fatah and Hamas’s revived dialogue; Abbas is in no position to ignore a healthy number of Fatah officials opposed to direct talks with Israel. Smelling blood, Hamas has eagerly reciprocated to engaging the peace process on its terms. This may be idealistic thinking, but the Palestinians must realize what they can gain united compared to divided. Were the two groups to reconcile their differences they would offer Abbas a unified front to pressure Israel and America into fairer terms.
Looking over the many pro-Palestinian champions, it would seem that none can necessarily move without the others. Palestinian unity represents the likeliest path to a true settlement freeze and favorable negotiating terms in general. Netanyahu can stand down Abbas or Hamas or Arab League, but what about all three at once?