Is Mahmoud Abbas the Obstacle to Peace?

Kenneth Bandler

7/23/2010 1:01:00 PM - Kenneth Bandler

The perfect storm is gathering in the Middle East, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems to be steering the ship directly into it.

In September, just as summer vacation ends, critical elements of the peace process will converge, seriously threatening Israel.

First, the Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks, an experiment launched in May under U.S. auspices, will reach the end of its four-month mandate. They are supposed to lead to a resumption of direct negotiations. Former Senator George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy, has been shuttling the short distance between Jerusalem and Ramallah in an effort to convince Palestinian leadership to sit down at the same table with Israelis, as they had for more than 16 years before Abbas cancelled direct talks 18 months ago. The history of Arab-Israeli peacemaking shows that direct talks are imperative to resolving core issues.

However, Abbas is not only avoiding direct talks, but seems reluctant even to continue proximity talks, turning again for cover to his Fatah Party leadership, to the PLO and even to the Arab League. Not difficult: Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa recently called the proximity talks “a comprehensive failure.”

So, only two months after Mitchell began his shuttle diplomacy, Abbas is upping the ante. In addition to demanding a total Jewish construction freeze in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, Abbas now wants the U.S. to obtain from Israel written guarantees on the final borders for a Palestinian state. Amr Moussa conveyed the same message to Mitchell when they met July 18 in Cairo.

As Ronald Reagan would have said, “There you go again!”

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Seriously, when will Palestinian leaders acknowledge that four consecutive Israeli prime ministers – Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu – have stated Israel’s commitment to a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Back when there were direct talks, very sweet offers were made. Barak, with the support of President Clinton, offered more than 90 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and even floated the idea of sharing Jerusalem. But the answer from Yasser Arafat in 2000 was the second intifada. Olmert made a similar offer on West Bank territory, as well as a piece of land on the Israeli side of the border, in 2008. But Abbas, rather than continue negotiating, followed in the footsteps of his mentor and predecessor, spurning the Israeli offer and summarily cancelling peace negotiations.

Furthermore, Abbas now insists that Israel begin negotiations from Olmert’s offer. Maybe the Palestinian leadership has a different concept for negotiations, but typically one should not expect to automatically go back to previously rejected terms.

Abbas – and his Arab state allies – must stop complaining and return to direct interaction with Netanyahu to find solutions. Of course, that presumes Abbas and company truly want to realize an independent Palestinian state, living in peace and security alongside Israel. There is reason for doubt. As more time passes, Abbas, his Fatah Party and the Arab League are confirming that they are willing accomplices in creating blockages in the peace process.

Second, Israel’s ten-month moratorium on new construction in the West Bank also ends in September. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision last November to impose the freeze was unprecedented. This was a gesture, in part, to President Obama, who had made the settlements issue a centerpiece of his Middle East policy, but also, and more importantly, a good-faith gesture to Abbas, yet another Israeli effort to convince the PA President to resume direct talks.

Some have asserted that the freeze is not full. True, the Israeli government moratorium does allow for completion of about 3,000 housing units in existing communities that were started before November 26, 2009. And, it never included Jerusalem. Yet, significantly, for the first time in history, there has been zero new settlement construction, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Extending the moratorium may be wise for Israel, but Netanyahu’s decision no doubt will be influenced, in part, by what Abbas does or doesn’t do. Continuing to boycott direct talks will not be helpful.

Third, world leaders will gather in New York in September for the UN General Assembly. One of the standard features of this annual gathering is adoption by the world body of a series of resolutions bashing Israel. The coincidence of impasses in peace talks and the settlements freeze will likely add fresh fodder to the UN debates. Again, Abbas, as well as other Arab leaders who truly seek peace with Israel, could use the UN podium to speak out in a more positive and encouraging manner about the future of their region, to offer visions for peace with Israel.

All of this will test the will and wisdom of the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team. Perhaps President Obama himself may insist on meeting at the UN with Abbas and Netanyahu together, to jump-start the long delayed direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. That could help reset the navigational tools on the Abbas ship to sail more purposefully towards a peaceful destination.