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A familiar obstacle to Mideast peace: Mahmoud Abbas

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, March 22, 2010

U.S. diplomats had labored for months to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace negotiations. Just as it appeared they had succeeded, there came a provocation: Israel took a step toward expanding a Jewish settlement in Jerusalem. Headlines appeared around the globe; the European Union protested; Palestinians cried foul. Some threatened to boycott the new talks unless the decision were reversed.

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No, Joe Biden was not in Jerusalem that week of December 2007 -- he was busy running for president. Instead it was Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state of the Bush administration, who managed that mini-crisis. How she did so, and what followed, offers some lessons for her successors in the Obama administration -- who are proving to be remarkably slow learners when it comes to Middle East peacemaking.

Rice and her old boss have been much maligned for failing to pursue Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during most of their time in office. But during her last two years as secretary of state, Rice doggedly pushed for a final settlement -- and, in the end, arguably came as close as any U.S. broker before her. She was fortunate in having, in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a partner who was more interested in striking a deal than is Binyamin Netanyahu. But she also studied closely the history of previous peace processes, which maybe explains why she avoided some of President Obama's flagrant mistakes.

As Rice might have told the current White House, lesson No. 1 from history is that there will always be a provocation that threatens to derail peace talks -- before they start, when they start and regularly thereafter. Israeli settlement announcements are among the most common, along with the orchestration by West Bank Palestinians of violent demonstrations and attacks from Gaza by Hamas. The Obama administration saw all three in the past 10 days: It went ballistic over one and barely registered the other two.

The trick is not to let the provocation become the center of attention but instead to insist on proceeding with the negotiations. That is what Rice did when news of the Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa broke. In public, she delivered a clear but relatively mild statement saying the United States had opposed the settlement "from the very beginning." In private, she told Olmert: Don't let that happen again. For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the message was equally blunt: You can come to the table and negotiate a border for a Palestinian state, making settlements irrelevant. Or you can boycott and let the building continue.

Not surprisingly, Abbas -- who has taken Obama's public assault on Israel as a cue to boycott -- showed up for Rice's negotiations. The Bush administration privately offered him an assurance: Any Israeli settlement construction that took place during the talks would not be accepted by the United States when it came time to draw a final Israeli border. On settlements, Rice adopted a pragmatic guideline she called the "Google Earth test": A settlement that visibly expanded was a problem; one that remained within its existing territorial boundary was not.

The virtue of all this is that Rice got the Israelis and Palestinians talking not about settlements but what they really needed to be discussing -- the future Palestine. Olmert and Abbas went over everything: the border, the future of Jerusalem and its holy sites, security arrangements, how to handle the millions of Palestinian refugees still living in camps. Privately, they agreed on a lot. Eventually, Olmert presented Abbas with a detailed plan for a final settlement -- one that, in its concessions to Palestinian demands, went beyond anything either Israel or the United States had ever put forward. Among other things it mandated a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem and would have allowed 10,000 refugees to return to Israel.

That's when Rice learned another lesson the new administration seems not to have picked up: This Palestinian leadership has trouble saying "yes." Confronted with a draft deal that would have been cheered by most of the world, Abbas balked. He refused to sign on; he refused to present a counteroffer. Rice and Bush implored him to join Olmert at the White House for a summit. Olmert would present his plan to Bush, and Abbas would say only that he found it worth discussing. The Palestinian president refused.

Behind Obama's deliberate fight with Netanyahu last week seemed to lie a calculation that a peace settlement will require the United States to bend or break Israel's current government. That might be true; it's almost certainly the case that Netanyahu would not accept the terms that Olmert offered. But behind that obstacle lies another -- the recalcitrance of Abbas -- that the new administration has been slow to recognize. It's all there in the annals of Rice's diplomacy -- but then, that was the Bush administration.


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