It is annoyingly predictable. When progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace emerges, Mahmoud Abbas issues demands and threats, while world leaders scramble to appease him. So, once again, we await the Palestinian Authority president’s decision. Will he or won’t he stay in the direct peace negotiations with Israel, recently revived, not without difficulty, by the president of the United States?
This is quintessential Abbas, the third time in 2010 alone that he has played this game. Resist engagement and delay a decision, seek Fatah and PLO cover for his thinking, then Arab League endorsement, and at the very last minute make a definitive decision or strive to appear pushed unwillingly into one.
Arab foreign ministers, eager partners in this charade, decided last Friday to withhold for another month a final decision on whether Abbas should keep negotiating, even though he effectively has already ended the talks. Arab governments ignored President Obama’s appeal to them in his UN speech to encourage Palestinian peacemaking and to take their own bilateral steps to engage Israel to foster a broader climate of peace.
Abbas has made Jewish settlements the sine qua non of Israeli-Palestinian relations, insisting that Israel cease and desist from any West Bank construction, and, also in eastern Jerusalem. Additional demands by Abbas and his aides that Israel pullback behind the pre-June 1967 armistice line begs the question of what is the Palestinian Authority’s ultimate goal.
Previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations produced a tacit understanding that a final deal would allow Jewish settlements in the West Bank near the Green Line, which house some 80 percent of the settlers, to officially become part of Israel, with a comparable piece of land transferred to the new Palestinian state by Israel. However, when this concept was first proposed by Israel in 2000 and again in 2008, the Palestinians walked away from the talks.
The settlements obsession may involve more than a building freeze. Uncompromising Arab demands that Israel depart from every millimeter of territory captured in wars initiated by Arab neighbors have long been at the core of peace negotiations.
For Egypt, Israel removed all settlers from Yamit and other Sinai communities. But the land issue was not totally resolved until Israel returned Taba in 1989, seven years after the peace treaty was signed.
Although the UN certified Israel’s total withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah and others still lay claim to the Shebaa Farms, a 25 square mile area on the border.
Israel removed all settlers from Gaza in 2005, but leaving the entire territory, without a signed agreement, may have encouraged those Palestinians who claim the entire West Bank.
With the West Bank, however, there are historical, political and demographic reasons why it is unrealistic to expect a return to the 1967 line (in actuality the 1949 line where Israeli and Jordanian forces stood at the end of the Arab-initiated 1948 war).Territorial adjustments will be necessary as President George W. Bush acknowledged in his June 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon.
Focusing on settlements has obscured such final status issues as security and refugees, which can and should be resolved in direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. But when it comes to engaging the current Israeli government, Abbas excels at declining the invitation.
Palestinian leadership disregarded Prime Minister Netanyahu’s vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace, set forth in his June 2009 Bar Ilan University speech, in which he echoed his three predecessors’ support for a negotiated two-state solution.
Similarly, the ten-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction Netanyahu imposed last November – intended to entice, with American nudging, Abbas back to peace negotiations --was ignored in Ramallah.
Abbas’s reticence is palpable. April was the first 2010 instance of the Palestinian leader’s tangled strategy. Countless hours of coaxing by George Mitchell, Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama resulted in the less than desirable proximity talks. Agreeing to that retro, indirect, framework was an Israeli concession.
August was the second instance. Abbas kept not just Israel, but also President Obama waiting, as he mulled the direct talks proposal, acceding after he secured Fatah, PLO and Arab League approval.
All who gathered September 1 for the White House dinner knew that the settlements moratorium end was imminent and likely could be the first hurdle if the Palestinians decided to exploit it. Two vicious Hamas terror attacks as the talks opened were not allowed to derail the process.
But it became clear that the Palestinians would not honor President Obama’s call on the parties to negotiate until a final deal is reached and not allow anything to interfere in a way that would end the talks before they are completed. Even before arriving in Washington, Abbas had explicitly threatened to end the talks if the settlement freeze was not extended beyond September 26.
The solution to reviving the direct talks, for the second time in less than two months, lies not with Israel, but with Abbas, whose grandstanding and ambivalence hinders progress and harms the very people whom he serves as Palestinian president. And the surest way to change Abbas is for the U.S. and other world leaders to stop playing his game, making every effort to appease him, but, instead, firmly remind the Palestinians that the only sound path to peace and a state will be found when they engage Israel in direct talks.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Communications.