Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York in September 2009. Photo by Reuters
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Ten years to the day after his successor and future wingman Ehud Barak met Yasser Arafat in Camp David, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is asking, almost pleading, Arafat's successor to agree to shake his hand. Without Mahmoud Abbas' consent to begin direct negotiations, it will be difficult to impossible to overcome opposition from Likud's hawks opposed to the continuation of the construction freeze in the settlements.

The Palestinians have learned since Camp David that the Israelis adhere zealously to David Ben-Gurion's maxim that it doesn't matter what the Gentiles say, it matters what the Jews do. In September 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin put his signature on the Oslo Accords, the West Bank had 110,000 settlers; in July 2010 there are more than 300,000 of them. And so Abbas, backed by the Arab League, is in no hurry to give in to Israelis and Americans over the freeze. But his refusal to negotiate directly isn't focusing on the freeze at all; it's rooted deep in the conflict's core issues.

Ten years and thousands of casualties after Barak spoke to Arafat about permanent borders and the Temple Mount, Abbas won't let himself go back to square one. After Ehud Olmert offered him 98.1 percent of the West Bank, Abbas, to use Netanyahu's words, will turn out a sucker if he agrees to begin negotiating the mere expansion of West Bank areas under Palestinian Authority control from 40 percent to 60 percent.

The principled Palestinian position remains unchanged not only since Camp David, but since the 1988 decision by the Palestinian National Council to make do with an independent state in territories occupied by Israel in June 1967. This position was reinforced in the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, which also replaced the intimidating words "right of return" with an "agreed and just solution" in accordance with UN Resolution 194.

Abbas, like Arafat before him, has narrow maneuvering room: Small territorial swaps on a scale of 1:1 with slight amendments, such as trading part of the territory for free passage between Gaza and the West Bank. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, negotiations on borders are meant to identify territories that can be traded and to flesh out the special arrangements for Jerusalem's Old City.

It's hard to tell whether Netanyahu is avoiding the border issue for ideological reasons or because of coalition politics. In any case, when the prime minister is asked to present his map for a final-status agreement, he hides behind the wall of security considerations. Netanyahu claims that it's impossible to demarcate defensible borders before agreeing on security arrangements.

He will find it hard to repeat this line at his meeting and subsequent joint press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama, however. Last week Abbas told Israeli reporters he agrees in advance and with no preconditions to host in Palestine an international force to defend Israel's well-being.

Abbas has thrown his cards on the table, opening them to the world. He doesn't expect Netanyahu to present his positions, however. For now, the Palestinian leader is pinning his hopes on the U.S. president. If not this week, maybe in November - after the midterm elections.