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Mahmoud Abbas’s formula for war

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M iddle East diplomacy is settling into a familiar pattern. Desperate to jump-start an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Obama administration and its European allies are piling pressure on Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, demanding that he offer a plan, concessions — something — that will provide the basis for starting negotiations with Palestinians.

As he has before, Netanyahu has responded, but cautiously and with obvious reluctance. On Monday he gave a speech suggesting that he was prepared to cede most of the West Bank to a Palestinian state — a step forward from his earlier refusal to spell out territorial terms.

Now, as Netanyahu heads to Washington, Israelis and Americans are debating, among themselves and with each other, whether Netanyahu has gone far enough (probably not) and whether President Obama should respond by putting his own plan on the table (probably he won’t).

Meanwhile, short shrift is given, as usual, to Netanyahu’s putative partner. Yet the leader of the Palestinian “moderate” branch, Mahmoud Abbas, is not only refusing to make any concessions of his own but is also turning his back on American diplomacy — and methodically setting the stage for another Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two weeks ago, Abbas blew up four years of U.S.-sponsored institution building, relative peace and growing prosperity in the West Bank by signing a “reconciliation” agreement with the Hamas movement — a deal that probably will obligate him to fire his progressive prime minister, release scores of jailed Hamas militants and bond his security forces with Hamas’s Iranian-equipped army. On Tuesday, he published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he committed himself to seeking a U.N. General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood in September.

It was, as the Times put it in a separate news story, “a declaration of war on the status quo.” Abbas’s new strategy is radically different: The U.N. vote, he wrote, will “pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights bodies and the International Court of Justice” — in other words, sanctions.

Meanwhile, there will be a change in Palestinian doctrine. The new goal will be one on which Abbas and Hamas can agree: not a peace treaty leading to statehood but statehood followed by negotiations, “a key focus” of which “will be reaching a just solution for Palestinian refugees” — whose return to Israel would mean its demise. “Palestine would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another,” Abbas declared. This is a formula for war — or “the third intifada,” as Palestinians are already calling it.

The Obama administration and its allies appear suitably alarmed by all this. But their principal reaction so far might be summed up as, “Now we really have to put the screws to Netanyahu.”

“It’s more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table,” Obama declared after a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Tuesday. Senior European diplomats who have recently phoned or met with Netanyahu have made clear what that means: Unless he can engage Abbas in negotiations before September, their governments will probably vote for the U.N. declaration of statehood.

Embedded in these demands is what might be called the soft bigotry of wishful thinking about Arab strongmen. U.S. and European leaders indulgently swallow the private assurances they receive from suit-wearing, English-speaking men like Abbas, rather than judging them by their actual behavior. Until this week Western governments have clung to the idea that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is secretly a “reformer,” even as he guns down his own people. Similarly, Obama persists in telling Jewish leaders and members of Congress that “Abbas is ready to make peace”; it follows that Netanyahu is the problem.

The record of the past several years suggests something very different. In 2008, Abbas refused to accept a far-reaching peace offer from Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, even as a basis for discussion; nor would he make a counteroffer. “The gaps were wide,” he later told me in an interview. For two years he has stoutly resisted peace talks with Netanyahu, even while conceding that the nominal reason for his intransigence — Israel’s refusal to freeze settlements — was forced on him by Obama.

Now Abbas is trying to transform the Arab Spring into a mass movement against Israel. It’s a maneuver that he knows will not bring peace, but it spares him, at age 76, from bearing the responsibility for making the concessions — on refugees, for example — necessary for a deal with Israel. If he succeeds, he could trigger not just another intifada but another Middle East war. Preventing this requires urgent and concerted U.S. action — and not just another scrape with Bibi Netanyahu.

diehlj@washpost.com

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