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Is Obama's Pressure for Direct Israeli-Palestinian Talks Pushing Region Towards War? (Updated)

Byzantine politics have nothing on negotiation strategies in the Middle East between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Headlines July 29 initially announced that the Arab League — meeting in Cairo and under heavy pressure from the Obama administration — had approved Abbas’ return to direct negotiations with Israel. Comments from Jerusalem, including from Netanyahu, hailed this welcome gesture as a chance to get back on track towards a two-state solution.

All sounds good: the Obama administration applying pressure on the Arab side, the Arabs respond and move forward; Israelis welcome the move.

But to those familiar with the nature of these negotiations, none of this made any sense.

For one thing, Abbas, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, has no interest in direct negotiations — and neither does the Arab League. For another, Netanyahu knows only too well that the Palestinians are not ready to undertake real state-building, and that the negotiations are essentially an American (and European) fantasy about a “solution” in two years that must be appeased without either fulfilling it, or getting blamed for its failure.

Commented Dore Gold:

From the Palestinian viewpoint this is less about peace and more about how to get Israel blamed by the Obama administration for the failure in negotiations that Mahmoud Abbas is certain will come.

Ultimately, it’s a game of musical chairs where all the players — including the American administration — don’t want to be caught standing in the spotlight when the music stops. And of course, there are no lack of self-critical Israelis prepared to point the finger for any failure at themselves.

A closer reading of events in Cairo confirms this less optimistic scenario. In response to Obama’s pressure, all the Arab League did was give Abbas permission to return to direct negotiations when he wants to. Al Jazeera’s account read:

The Arab League has declined to endorse an immediate resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, saying it needs further guarantees from the United States before approving talks.

For all the high hopes, it’s the same situation: Abbas and the Arab League have major preconditions just to sit down and negotiate, and they want the U.S. to do their work for them:

Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary-general, said that direct negotiations should be preceded by “written guarantees” from the United States, particularly on the subject of Israeli settlements.

As one participant in the Cairo meetings put it, the League gave “a yellow light that needs some work before it becomes a green light.” In other words, the Arab League gave Abbas the go-ahead to do what he was already doing.

In reality, the Arab League decided not to decide, and to avoid confrontation with either side. On the one hand they told the American administration that they won’t stop Abbas and that in principle they support direct talks, but at the same time they don’t send Abbas to the talks and they reiterate the Arab preconditions. They get praised for doing nothing, just because they didn’t do something worse, leaving a reluctant Abbas to make the decision himself. And of course, Abbas can just pile on the preconditions, including the removal of Hamas from Gaza, and a Palestinian state cleansed of all Jewish presence.

Dore Gold also commented:

The real Palestinian goal is not to negotiate, but rather to win international, and especially U.S. backing for a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, modeled on Kosovo’s unilateral move in 2008. With this month’s decision in the International Court of Justice that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration was legal, the Palestinians have added incentive to follow this route.

Barry Rubin sees this as:

A defeat for U.S. policy and may be the death knell for direct negotiations this year. After all the flattery, distancing from Israel, and going easy on Arab regimes, the Obama administration has failed to get them to deliver what his three predecessors obtained easily without such measures: direct Israel-Palestinian talks.

Of course, all of this occurs in the looming shadow of September 26, the date at which Netanyahu’s self-imposed “settlement freeze” expires. As Yoel Marcus pointed out, Abbas — rather than take advantage of this concession — has used the time to withdraw from direct negotiations and make further demands.

Netanyahu has made it clear he cannot extend it without a revolt from his own party and other members of his coalition. And so some analysts expect Abbas to wait until sometime in September to agree to direct negotiations in exchange for that extension. If that ploy fails, it may produce another explosion of violence, right about the time of the 10-year anniversary of the Oslo Terror War (September 29, 2000). And this time, it will be with U.S.-trained Palestinian troops.

In a broader context, the role of the Arab League reveals something that lies behind much of the problem with negotiations. Although Western journalists don’t like to emphasize it much, the bottom line for Abbas and any other Palestinian leader is that just appearing to cooperate with and make concessions to Israel is the kiss of death. Indeed, the Palestinians are the designated sacrificial victims of Arab anti-Israel strategy: they must suffer in order to blame and delegitimize Israel.

What Daniel Pipes noted almost twenty years ago still holds true:

Recognizing the critical role of Arab help has several implications for Middle East politics. First, it means that the PLO has very little of the political power so often ascribed to it. The PLO may appear to shape the policy of most Arab states, but in fact it reflects their wishes. It brings up the rear, echoing and rephrasing the weighted average of Arab sentiments. This suggests that it will moderate only when its Arab patrons want it to; so long as the Arab consensus needs it to reject Israel, the PLO must do so. Aspiring peacemakers in the Middle East must therefore not make settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute contingent on PLO concurrence, for this is to give a veto to the organization least prone to compromise.

Despite the accepted “wisdom” that presents this as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (with its natural corollary of the Palestinian/David vs. Israeli/Goliath frame), this has always been the Arab-Israeli conflict, and just as Western observers signed on to the tiny framework of the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, it expanded into the Muslim-Israeli conflict.

And in that framework, this is not about land-for-peace, it’s not about positive-sum solutions, but rather about preserving the honor and self-respect of the Arab and Muslim world by eliminating the humiliating disgrace of an independent Jewish state in the midst of Dar-al-Islam.

Even the Palestinians know this. The term “intifada” means “shrugging off” as when a cow or a camel shakes its hide to shoo away a fly. They know they are the great beast, and Israel the tiny, pesky insect. It behooves any policymaker to understand this rather than engage in fantasies of a solution in 24 months. Then maybe the ridiculous game of musical chairs can end, and we can get serious about bringing some semblance of peace to this troubled part of the globe.

UPDATE: It has become rapidly clear what the carrots and the sticks are that the Obama administration has been using in this matter. Apparently Obama himself has decided that an enormous amount of his prestige depends on getting the direct negotiations going again. Abbas had spoken of enormous pressure on him, but at the same time, Obama has given the Palestinian delegation in Washington an upgraded status that permits them to fly their own flag, a move some analysts think was a premature award. Abbas continues to drag his feet on direct talks, demanding “three-way talks” largely to insist on Israeli concessions before entering direct talks.

Given the concessions Netanyahu has made in the days since the Arab League’s move, there seem to be equally strong pressures on him. A letter (memorandum of understanding) from Obama to Abbas suggests that in exchange for engaging in direct talks, Obama will pressure Netanyahu to continue the settlement freeze. In the meantime, the sudden and surprising announcement that Israel agreed to allow the UN (!) to investigate the flotilla incident suggests heavy administration involvement by, among others, U.S. Ambasssador to the UN Susan Rice. The Turks were quick to gloat that Israel caved in the matter.

Of course all of these maneuverings occur against the backdrop of a radical irredentist force at work in Arab society, like Hamas, for whom even a Palestinian state on every inch of the land under Arab control before 1967 would be unacceptable — especially if it meant recognizing the state of Israel. For them, any move to negotiations, even one that violates every Israeli red line, is a danger they must avoid.

Thus yesterday, rockets aimed at Eilat in the south of Israel — an unprecedented target which ended up killing a Jordanian on the other side of the border — reminded everyone of the power in the hands of those who can at any moment fire at Israeli civilian centers. Indeed, they may have been fired from the Sinai, another major escalation in the level of threat. And if the south is heating up, then today the north heated up still more.

Obama, who lives in the world of Western progressive politics of “soft power” and consensual negotiated settlements, does not have a clue as to what kind of dynamics operate here in the Middle East. Like a sorcerer’s apprentice, he uses the power of the presidency to move the parties “in the right direction,” and instead unleashes forces over which he has no control. To help his image among the American people, to reassert his control, he has twisted arms and played with fire.

He may just be contributing to another round of war.

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