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The Mideast blame game

By Aaron David Miller,

When Secretary of State James Baker was organizing the Madrid peace conference in 1991, he resorted to a device he called the dead cat on the doorstep. Simply put, Baker threatened to publicly blame Israeli, Palestinian and Syrian leaders if they didn’t accept the terms and attend the conference.

It worked.

Ironically, the dead-cat routine also explains the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — but in reverse.

The story today isn’t about an American threatening Israelis and Palestinians if they don’t get serious about negotiations. These days, everybody is maneuvering to ensure that someone else takes the blame when the dust settles after the mini-crisis at the United Nations next month.

For some time, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has had nothing to do with getting to a serious negotiation. That’s because no one in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington believes that an agreement, let alone one to end the conflict, is possible now.

There was a brief moment at the beginning of the Obama administration when Israelis and Palestinians were excited about a new president who seemed prepared to marshal the toughness, reassurance and commitment required to broker a negotiated agreement. But nobody believes that anymore.

What is still important to Israelis and Palestinians, however, is ensuring that responsibility for the potential debacle following the Palestinians’ statehood initiative is placed on somebody else. President Obama, too, is ready to play the blame game. Even if the administration manages to preempt the initiative by selling a formula to relaunch negotiations or getting both sides to acquiesce in a statement through the “Quartet,” nobody wants to risk making decisions that could produce an actual agreement. Making a point is a lot easier than making a difference.

For Palestinians, this phase of the peace process isn’t about getting to the table with this Israeli government. So Palestinians have switched from discussions with the Israelis and Americans — a bi/trilateral arena in which their influence is limited — to the international stage, where they have more sway.

They understand that upgrading their status from non-member observer entity to non-member observer state (like the Vatican) would be much better than interminable talks with the Israelis. They know that a U.N. resolution recognizing the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as sovereign Palestinian territory and as a state might give them more leverage, solidify an international consensus against Israel and possibly even put them in a position to threaten legal sanctions since all Israeli actions in the West Bank might be interpreted as violating the sovereignty of the new Palestine.

The Palestinians know the risks — a rift with the United States and possible congressional cutoff of aid. Their leaders know that action at the United Nations won’t change conditions on the ground and could lead to a frustrated public and violence, most likely against the Israelis.

No matter, the Palestinians say, at least we are controlling our fate. And for President Mahmoud Abbas, who may soon be retiring from politics, virtual statehood is an achievement and sends a message: The problem isn’t me; it’s the Israelis.

As for the Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned about Israel’s isolation but worries more that serious negotiation with the Palestinians would undermine his government and put him in a position where he can’t or won’t meet Palestinian bottom lines on Jerusalem or refugees.

Netanyahu rightly calculates that Obama has no choice but to stand with him in opposing Palestinian action at the United Nations, and he is counting on the United States to sway a number of Europeans. He has already gotten Washington to buy into his requirement that Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state or at least endorse that as a legitimate demand in negotiations. He is prepared to blast Palestinians for going to the United Nations instead of the negotiating table and for the PA’s unity talks with Hamas terrorists. If negotiations resume, he’s prepared to accept Obama’s formula of June 1967 borders with swaps — on this point alone, the two sides could talk interminably without resolving anything.

The Obama administration has learned a few things. The president doesn’t want to oppose Palestinian statehood, which he supports, and he really can’t stand Netanyahu. But he knows that given all of his other priorities, he doesn’t need a high-profile failure of the peace process or a fight with Israelis, Republicans or American Jews over a U.N. resolution criticizing a close ally. Obama isn’t looking forward to it, but he’s prepared to lay the dead cat in Ramallah if necessary or, if he really gets mad, at Netanyahu’s doorstep.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue should not be trivialized. Last week’s attacks near Eilat and the Israeli response show that violence always looms; Palestinians are suffering; Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state is at risk; and American credibility is on the line. But if Israeli and Palestinian leaders wanted to solve their problem, or at least make a serious run at negotiating (with or without U.S. help), we would not be on the verge of a big blame game. The fact is, however unpleasant the status quo, keeping things as they are strikes Israelis, Palestinians and Americans as much less risky than the decisions required to change it. Until that calculation changes — driven by the prospects of real pain and gain — there are going to be a lot more dead cats in the neighborhood.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process. His next book, “Can America Have Another Great President?,” will be published in 2012.

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