Peace talks AP 2.9.2010
Hillary Clinton, George Mitchell, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas at talks in Washington D.C., September 2, 2010. Photo by AP
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The direct talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas begin with a poker game. On the table is a settlement freeze, and the two players are raising the stakes. Abbas is threatening to leave the talks before they begin if Israel renews construction. Netanyahu says construction will start again in a controlled way, as things were during the previous government under Ehud Olmert. Whoever blinks first will look weak to the people back home.

In the Israeli-Palestinian game we have a referee who dictates the outcome - U.S. President Barack Obama - but Obama is limited in his ability to pressure the prime minister because of the upcoming midterm elections and Netanyahu's good behavior; the prime minister frequently mentions peace and avoids provocations.

Both players have a weak hand. Abbas can't embarrass Obama and bolt the talks and Netanyahu can't risk losing power. So the real question is not "what will happen at the end of the freeze," but what Netanyahu and Abbas will get in return for giving up their original positions.

Netanyahu, who blinked first and signaled his willingness to compromise, wants a discussion of his demand to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jews (the Palestinian rejection will brand Abbas as an opponent of peace ). Netanyahu is prepared for gestures on the ground (placing the road to the new Palestinian city of Rawabi in the West Bank near Ramallah in the hands of the PA and giving additional security powers to the Palestinians in the West Bank ).

Abbas will not hear of recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jews and wants to discuss borders first, to force Netanyahu to offer more than Olmert did, or offer less and look miserly or against peace.

Perhaps Obama will simply ask Netanyahu to extend the freeze and get something security-related on the Iranian track that will allow the prime minister to persuade his colleagues in his party and the coalition to agree to a freeze for a little longer.