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Abbas proves he prefers posturing to a peace process

Friday, February 18, 2011; 8:11 PM

PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT Mahmoud Abbas claims to be interested in negotiating a two-state peace settlement with Israel. For two years he has enjoyed the support of a U.S. president more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than most, if not all, of his predecessors. Yet Mr. Abbas has mostly refused to participate in the direct peace talks that Barack Obama made one of his top foreign policy priorities - and now he has shown himself to be bent on embarrassing and antagonizing the U.S. administration.

Rejecting direct appeals from both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Abbas chose to persist on Friday with a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that called on Israel to cease settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Though the administration supports this position - and has counterproductively pressed it at the expense of its larger diplomatic aims - it vetoed the resolution, as Mr. Abbas knew it would do. For a number of good reasons, including its hope of preserving the chance of peace negotiations, the Obama administration could not allow a one-sided U.N. condemnation of Israel.

The only effect of the Palestinian initiative will be to embarrass the Obama administration at a delicate moment, when popular uprisings around the Middle East already are challenging pro-American leaders. It will have no impact on Israeli settlement construction, and it will deal a further blow to the prospects for peace talks. It will bolster the right-wing Israeli government. Conceivably, it could cause Arab protests now focused on autocratic rule to take an ugly anti-American turn.

Mr. Abbas has known all of this all along. Yet he refused to set aside the resolution even when the administration offered a generous compromise - a proposed "presidential statement" from the Security Council criticizing Israeli settlements as well as the firing of rockets at Israel from Gaza. Mr. Obama is taking considerable heat from Congress just for proposing this outcome - and yet in a 50-minute phone call Thursday, he was unable to win the Palestinian president's assent.

Mr. Abbas's stubbornness might seem spectacularly self-defeating - but only if one assumes that he is genuinely interested in a peace deal. In fact, the U.N. gambit allows him to posture as a champion of the Palestinian cause without having to consider any of the hard choices that would be needed to found a Palestinian state. It enables him to deflect criticism from the rival Hamas movement about his friendly relations with the United States. It might even allow him to head off a popular Palestinian rebellion against his own autocratic behavior - Mr. Abbas has failed to schedule overdue elections, including for his own post as president.

The Obama administration has all along insisted that Mr. Abbas is willing and able to make peace with Israel - despite considerable evidence to the contrary. If the U.N. resolution veto has one good effect, perhaps it will be to prompt a reevaluation of a leader who has repeatedly proved both weak and intransigent.

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