Two weeks ago President Obama took time off from the crisis in Ukraine to pursue the foreign policy cause that, together with nuclear disarmament, has been closest to his heart: Israeli-Palestinian peace. Having invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House, Obama welcomed him by publicly declaring to Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel “could face a bleak future — one of international isolation and demographic disaster — if [Netanyahu] refuses to endorse a U.S. drafted framework agreement for peace,” as Goldberg summed it up.
Fair enough, you might say: An April 29 deadline for obtaining agreement to the framework is getting close, so it’s time for a little presidential arm-twisting. It follows that when Mahmoud Abbas troops into the Oval Office for his meeting on Monday, he should be met with equally dire predictions of Palestinian doom if he fails to accept the framework.
So far, there’s no sign of it: no presidential interviews, no statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, no leaks of potential U.S. punitive measures if Abbas — repeating a long personal and Palestinian history — says no. Therein lies the fallacy that has hamstrung Obama’s Middle East diplomacy for the past five years.
Obama, as he made clear in the Goldberg interview, perceives Abbas as the golden key to Mideast peace — “the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have,” as Goldberg paraphrased it — and Netanyahu as the potential spoiler. “I believe that President Abbas is sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist,” the president said. “You’ve got a partner on the other side who is prepared to negotiate seriously . . . for us not to seize this moment I think would be a great mistake.”
But is Obama right about Abbas? Netanyahu, like most Israelis, doesn’t think so — and with some reason. The Palestinian president — who was elected to a four-year term in 2005 and has remained in office for five years after its expiration — turned down President George W. Bush’s request that he sign on to a similar framework in 2008. In 2010, after Obama strong-armed Netanyahu into declaring a moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, Abbas refused to negotiate for nine of the designated 10 months, then broke off the talks after two meetings.
Abbas agreed to Kerry’s proposal for another nine-month negotiating window last year in exchange for Israel’s release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners, including many convicted of murdering civilians. Abbas hailed them as heroes. Then he embarked on a public campaign to deep-six the two principal provisions Israel has sought in the U.S. framework, both of which have had Washington’s support. One would allow Israeli soldiers to remain along the Palestinian-Jordanian border during an extended transition period; the other would involve Palestinian recognition that Israel is a Jewish state.
The “Jewish state” question is hard for many non-Israelis to understand: Who cares what Arabs call Israel, so long as they accept it? But for Netanyahu and his followers, the question is essential. Arab leaders have never conceded that a non-Arab state can hold a permanent place in the Middle East, they say. Until they do so, there will be no real peace, because Palestinians will keep pressing to weaken and eventually eliminate Israel’s Jewish majority.
Obama and Kerry have endorsed the Jewish-state principle; their hope was to use it to leverage Netanyahu’s acceptance of framework language stipulating that the territory of a Palestinian state would be equal to, if not exactly the same as, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some in the Israeli media are betting that Netanyahu most likely would accept that outcome — albeit with many reservations — even at the risk of losing his right-wing governing coalition. After all, the price of saying no, repeatedly underlined by Kerry and Obama, is daunting: more boycotts, more anti-Israel initiatives at the United Nations, perhaps even another violent Palestinian uprising.
In short, Netanyahu has resigned himself to the likelihood that the U.S. framework will include provisions he’s not ready to endorse. Abbas has not. “There is no way. We will not accept,” the Palestinian news agency quoted him as saying of the Jewish-state principle on March 7. Two days later, Abbas persuaded the moribund Arab League to adopt a resolution backing him up. He’s said much the same about Israeli troops on the border.
Why does Abbas dare to publicly campaign against the U.S. and Israeli position even before arriving in Washington? Simple: “Abbas believes he can say no to Obama because the U.S. administration will not take any retaliatory measures against the Palestinian Authority,” writes the veteran Israeli-Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. Instead, Abbas expects to sit back if the talks fail, submit petitions to the United Nations and watch the anti-Israel boycotts mushroom, while paying no price of his own.
Perhaps Obama will disabuse him of that notion at their meeting Monday. If not, another “peace process” breakdown is surely coming.