Who's bluffing: Abbas or Netanyahu?

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 13, 2010

The conventional wisdom about Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu as they head into the second round of Mideast peace talks this week goes something like this: Abbas is a moderate who genuinely wants a two-state settlement but may be too weak politically to deliver. Netanyahu is a hawk who holds a commanding political position in Israel but doesn't really accept Palestinian statehood.

So how come it is Netanyahu who has spent the past week talking up a "historic compromise with our Palestinian neighbors" and promising "to embrace original thinking" to achieve it, even as ministers of his own cabinet loudly proclaim their opposition? And why has Abbas, who has described himself as having been dragged into the talks, been giving interviews in which he has repeatedly threatened a walkout and publicly ruled out concessions that Palestinian pollsters say a majority of his people are willing to accept?

In the Middle East, of course, things -- like public statements -- are not always what they seem. But the contradiction between the usual judgments about the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and what they actually have been saying underlines what may be the most intriguing aspect of the latest "peace process." The talks have been structured so that most of the negotiating will be done directly between Netanyahu and Abbas in private conversations. Yet no one -- not the usual experts, not the Obama administration, and not even most people in the Israeli and Palestinian governments -- is quite sure what the two leaders' real intentions are.

Start with Netanyahu. As prime minister during the 1990s, the Likud leader did more than his share to wreck the Oslo plan for a two-state solution, and he has never said publicly that he would accept a fully sovereign Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem. But as the Jerusalem Post diplomatic writer Herb Keinon observed last week, Netanyahu's rhetoric has been rapidly shifting: He's begun calling Abbas "a partner for peace" and using the term "West Bank" rather than the Israeli nationalist term, "Judea and Samaria."

Keinon offered three possible explanations of the prime minister's behavior, including that he is trying to put Abbas on the spot or appease Barack Obama. But it seems at least plausible that Netanyahu was serious when he told his cabinet that he can accept a Palestinian state on two conditions: that Israel is recognized as "the national state of the Jewish people" and that a stringent security regime ensures that "there will be no repetition of what occurred after we left Lebanon and Gaza" -- both of which have been occupied by Iranian-backed militants who, among other things, have deployed thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli cities.

To that I would add a third proviso: Netanyahu wants the implementation of Palestinian statehood to be phased, even if its final terms are agreed upon in advance. Initially at least, Israeli forces would patrol Palestine's eastern border with Jordan, and perhaps some settlements on Palestinian territory would remain in place.

That may or may not be workable. But it's worth noting that Abbas, following his first extended private conversation with Netanyahu in Washington, spent the subsequent days giving interviews to Arab media in which he publicly rejected each of those terms. Palestinians, he said, will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state; they will not allow Israeli forces to remain in the West Bank. In fact, if he's pressured to make any concessions, he told the al-Quds newspaper, "I'll grab my briefcase and leave."

Palestinian partisans rush to explain: Abbas says such things only because he is under terrible domestic pressure, not only from Hamas but from the Palestinian "street." But is he? A study of recent Palestinian opinion polls by David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy pointed out that 60 percent of Palestinians will accept "mutual recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people and Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people." Half say they could tolerate an interim Israeli presence on the Jordanian border "for reasons of security."

Abbas has managed to convince the Obama administration that he is serious about a peace settlement. So perhaps he is. Perhaps, too, Netanyahu -- an acknowledged master of political public relations -- has succeeded in creating an image of his intentions that is the opposite of reality. In any case, both men will soon have to decide whether to deliver on their words. We can only hope that it is Abbas, and not Netanyahu, who is bluffing.

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