Friday, September 24, 2010

Getting Abbas to the Table

The barrier built a decade ago to protect the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from Fatah fire is being dismantled.Some residents are worried: today's tranquility is welcome, said one, but why tempt fate when there is still no peace agreement with the Palestinians, and not even direct negotiations?

Actually, direct negotiations, or a semblance of them, may be in the offing. Under intense American and EU pressure, Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority is expected grudgingly to end its year-long boycott and return to the bargaining table. But there is no sign that Abbas has any intention of seizing the moment to engage Israel in a fruitful give-and-take. Rather, the Palestinian leadership, its electoral legitimacy long expired, appears simply to have run out of excuses.

Abbas had insisted he would not talk with Benjamin Netanyahu unless Israel stopped housing construction over the Green Line. When Israel duly instituted a building moratorium, he said it was not enough since the freeze did not include Jerusalem. A further, unfulfillable precondition then followed: Israel had to commit itself in advance to withdrawing to the 1949 armistice lines. Then Abbas insisted that talks begin where they had left off with former premier Ehud Olmert, whose final magnanimous offer he had simply pocketed without comment.

Now, even as the Palestinians are being dragged back to the table, they are demanding that the construction moratorium they have denigrated for the past eleven months be extended beyond its September sunset date. If not, in the words of chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the talks will be "buried" before they can be re-launched.

Jerusalem appears unlikely to accede to this, though the cabinet might agree to limit new building to settlement blocs: i.e., strategic areas that all agree must remain within Israel in any deal. Meanwhile, the international Quartet—consisting of the U.S., the EU, Russia, and the UN—may set parameters for direct negotiations framed by its earlier statement catering to Palestinian preconditions while giving short shrift to Israel's sensibilities. If so, Jerusalem is expected to take part only in response to a separate invitation from Washington, and without preconditions. As for the other half of the Palestinian polity, the one autocratically run by Hamas in Gaza, it refuses either to entertain an accommodation with Abbas or to accept Israel's legitimacy under any circumstances.

If the fractious Palestinian polity is in no way ready for a viable deal, and if imposing a solution on Israel is politically unfeasible and strategically self-defeating, what explains the full-court press to cajole Abbas to the table? The answer appears to be this: George Mitchell (for the American administration), Tony Blair (for the Quartet), and Catherine Ashton (for the EU) are deeply invested in the notion that Abbas is prepared to deliver on a historic two-state solution, and therefore even the illusion of momentum trumps the status quo.

But does it? Yes, Israel wants to achieve a breakthrough through direct talks. But ill-conceived negotiations, in which Abbas is encouraged to advance maximalist demands regarding refugees, borders, Jerusalem, and security, could prove as counterproductive this time around as at Camp David in 2000—when, unprepared for compromise, the Palestinians unleashed a years-long paroxysm of violence.

Getting Abbas to the table, like dismantling the concrete slabs protecting Gilo, is the easy part.
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August 2010

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