The Middle East Channel

Obama, Abbas, and calling the ‘direct talks’ bluff

Obama, Abbas, and calling the ‘direct talks’ bluff

Yesterday’s decision by the Arab League to endorse direct Israeli-Palestinian talks — an endorsement that apparently is not, as some have reported, conditioned on additional concrete assurances from the Obama administration — increases the chances that President Abbas will at last test the resolve of his counterpart regarding direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.

No, the counterpart I am referring to is not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, but President Barack Obama.  

The Obama administration is pressuring Abbas to take a huge leap of faith and enter direct talks despite pervasive doubts about Netanyahu’s commitment to negotiating peace. And the Obama administration has pressured the Arab League to put its kosher stamp on such talks to make it harder for Abbas to keep saying "no".

When Abbas and his Arab allies have asked President Obama for reassurances that the talks won’t end badly, President Obama is reportedly telling them, including in a recent letter: trust me, I’ll deliver Bibi.  

Given these conditions, if Abbas agrees to talks — as I believe he must — he should in the same breath throw down the gauntlet to Obama, making clear that direct talks will be as much a test of US intentions and resolve as they are of Israel’s and the Palestinians’. He should make the case, publicly, that he is trusting the US to live up to its assurances. He should make explicit his expectation that the US will not just sit by, impotently, if Israel engages in behavior that is inimical to serious, productive, good-faith negotiations — not unless the US wants to be responsible for wasting what may be the last, best opportunity for peace.   

Abbas has good reasons to be worried about direct talks. 

There is every reason to believe that Netanyahu is less interested in an agreement and more interested in protracted negotiations that serve his political interests, both domestically and internationally. One need only look at the recently-surfaced video of Netanyahu talking to a group of West Bank settlers in 2001 — in which Netanyahu brags that he knows how to manipulate the US and that he personally derailed Oslo — to understand this concern. Moreover, there is the fact that Netanyahu has assembled the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history — including people like Benny Begin and Eli Yishai, both of whom are dead-set against the kinds of steps Israel would have to take to get a peace agreement.  

Netanyahu’s handling of proximity talks only strengthens concern that direct negotiations won’t be serious. By all accounts the Palestinians came to proximity talks with a serious, professional negotiating team, with position papers, and with concrete proposals regarding final status issues. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has yet to name a negotiating team. His representatives to the talks, rather than talking final-status issues, have reportedly wasted everyone’s time focusing on what Israel can’t do, instead of exploring what it can.

Abbas also has good reason to worry that once talks start his limits will be tested with developments that will seriously embarrass him and further erode his credibility. Abbas surely remembers Netanyahu’s decision, immediately after signing the Hebron Agreement, to approve construction of the new Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa. And Abbas surely remembers that despite the slap-in-the-face this decision represented to the US-backed peace process, Washington turned out to be powerless to stop it.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Abbas would be a fool not to fear that if direct talks fall apart, he will be blamed, regardless of the circumstances. He cannot help but recall the experience at Camp David, where the Palestinians did not want to go into direct talks and were quietly assured by the White House that whatever happened, they would not be blamed. And when Camp David collapsed, of course, they were. And Abbas cannot fail to notice that some of the same players who blamed the Palestinians after Camp David’s collapse, in a failed effort to help then-Prime Minister Barak stave off an electoral defeat, are once again involved in formulating White House policy.

Many are suggesting today that Abbas should agree to direct talks to call Netanyahu’s bluff, but if the day arrives when Netanyahu’s game-playing and provocations are turning direct talks into a farce, it will be the actions and statements of the United States, not Abbas, that will determine whether Netanyahu gets away with it. Given past experience, Abbas has good reason to worry that on that day, rather than getting tough with Netanyahu, the Obama administration will pressure him to remain in talks, even at the loss of the last shred of Abbas’ personal credibility. Abbas has good reason to fear that, should there be some act so egregious — like approval of Jerusalem mayor Barkat’s plan to "re-develop" Silwan into a settlers’ paradise at the expense of the Palestinian residents — that he is compelled to suspend the talks, it will be Abbas, not Netanyahu, who will end up being blamed for killing the peace process.

So let’s be clear: Abbas’ reluctance to say "yes" to direct talks is understandable.  

Yet despite all these reservations, the time has come for Abbas to stop saying "no" and say "yes". The Arab League’s decision to support direct talks — despite not getting additional concrete assurances from Washington — will make this a little easier for him to do.

But when he says "yes", it should be a smart "yes" — one accompanied by an unequivocal and unapologetic message that Washington must bear its fair share of responsibility for the success or failure of the entire endeavor; a message that if the Obama administration wants direct talks it will get them, but their success or failure will depend in large part on the President’s readiness to live up to his assurances and not permit Prime Minister Netanyahu to transform the talks into a diplomatic charade and a political exercise in futility.

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now