Middle-East Peace Talks: Thin Pickings for Abbas

Clinton Netanyahu AbbasIn the New York Times yesterday, Mark Landler wrote of the Obama administration’s bafflement at the lack of progress in the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, hung up since last month on the issue of prolonging the Israeli government’s nominal settlement freeze as a condition for continuing the discussions. For the respective Israeli and Palestinian leaders, extending the settlement “freeze” has entailed attempting to reconcile the mutually antagonistic political interests of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, whose claim to represent Palestinians in any meaningful capacity is already tenuous at best, can hardly negotiate with Israel as an equal while a theoretical Palestinian state is being settled by Israeli Jews (connected integrally to Israel proper by Jewish-only highways). Netanyahu, conversely, has argued that an extension of the freeze could dissolve his parliamentary coalition as rightwing parties flee in protest. Landler notes that no amount of American concessions to either side has managed to bridge this gap:

Not only is the Obama administration holding hands, [veteran negotiators] said, it is also handing out concessions to each side, in a bid to keep Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas at the table. The generosity of the American offers, and the reluctance of the Israelis or the Palestinians to accept them, have been telling.

What this apparent generosity entails for either side, of course, requires some examination:

In the case of Israel, officials said, the United States is offering military hardware, support for a long-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, help with enforcing a ban on the smuggling of weapons through a Palestinian state, a promise to veto Security Council resolutions critical of Israel during the talks and a pledge to forge a regional security agreement for the Middle East.

For all this, people briefed on the details said, the United States is seeking a single 60-day, nonrenewable extension.

“It’s an extraordinary package for essentially nothing,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, who also served as American ambassador to Israel and was a negotiator in the Clinton administration. “Given what’s already happened, who thinks that a two-month extension is enough?”

In exchange for extending the freeze a mere 60 days, Israel stands to gain American approval for Israeli military presence “in the Jordan Valley” (i.e., Israeli control of the borders of the West Bank, which should ostensibly be Palestinian territory) in order to crack down on “the smuggling of weapons,” a scenario that sounds not at all unlike the current blockade of Gaza. This comes in addition to the largely unqualified military and diplomatic support that Israel receives from the United States anyway.

And for the Palestinians?

For now, at least, [extending the freeze] has trumped even an offer by the United States to formally endorse a Palestinian state based on the borders of Israel before the 1967 Middle East war, something for which the Palestinians have long pushed. Some Palestinians say that an American endorsement is not worth a great deal if the Israelis refuse to recognize it.

An American endorsement of a Palestinian state defined against Israel’s 1967 borders might certainly appear significant, but, as Landler notes, it is only an Israeli endorsement that would matter. What good are the 1967 borders if Israel is permitted to maintain an overbearing presence in the West Bank, and most likely Gaza as well? Abbas is essentially invited either to negotiate without standing or to accept a face-saving endorsement that changes nothing on the ground.

Now comes the news that Netanyahu, presumably deferring to the right wing of his cabinet, has decided to reject the Americans’ offer. As Barak Ravid reports in Ha’artez, American negotiators are incensed.

But should they be surprised? They offered Netanyahu what amounted essentially to political cover – making a meaningless 60-day concession in exchange for further American support and the façade of negotiating cooperatively. But since Netanyahu is almost certainly counting on American support to continue anyway, it is probably unsurprising that he demurred on political cover with the Americans in favor of cover with his own hard right cabinet.

It is hard to see how the talks might continue under these circumstances, at least under the terms preferred by the Obama administration. Netanyahu has bolstered his own political standing at virtually no cost to his American support. Abbas’ options remain restricted to saving face or skipping town. Perhaps the only new casualty of Netanyahu’s refusal will be the ready-made media narrative that the talks collapsed because of Palestinian intransigence, as Abbas’ refusal to choose from among a lack of real options has receded, for the moment at least, into the background.

If American negotiators truly are properly incensed, perhaps they will trade their carrots for sticks and link the continuation of current aid to Israel to the extension of the settlement freeze – and perhaps while they are at it, they might insist that the freeze be properly comprehensive and subject to renewal, neither of which condition applies to the current proposal. An additional American endorsement of the 1967 borders might then begin to matter, and Abbas would at least begin to acquire some of the requisite standing for him to make meaningful agreements down the line. As long as Netanyahu is content to jettison peace to stay afloat in his cabinet, perhaps American negotiators could see to it that he takes on more water with the Israeli public.

Peter Certo is an intern with Foreign Policy in Focus, to which he contributes along with the Balkans Project.