Before Netanyahu pops the champagne
The Americans are coming. The U.S. national security adviser, Jim Jones, visited Israel last week, and Mideast envoy George Mitchell landed in the country yesterday. But without a dramatic change in both Washington's and Jerusalem's positions, talks on a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not be relaunched even after Mitchell leaves.
Much has been said about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' imminent surrender to U.S. and Arab pressure to return to the negotiating table. But it seems both the Netanyahu and Obama administrations are missing part of the picture.
Abbas is far from eager to return to final-status talks without a construction freeze in East Jerusalem. It's true that Israel's government either cannot or does not want to stop building there. But with Washington's help, Abbas has conditioned the renewal of talks on ending such construction and can hardly back off that position now. An Israeli gesture like freeing prisoners or even transferring Area B of the West Bank to full Palestinian control are, in his view, simply insufficient.
A number of news outlets have reported in recent weeks of Arab pressure on Abbas to resume negotiations. This pressure, however, is being applied behind closed doors. Explicit declarations, such as those by the Saudi foreign minister and Arab League secretary general, have instead generally endorsed Abbas' opposition to renewing talks without a complete West Bank construction freeze. And as we have already learned, in the Middle East, remarks made on the record are worth more than those made in secret.
It's possible that American and international pressure will one day reap rewards, but in the meantime, Abbas can be expected to stand firm in his resistance to resuming talks. After all, he is more worried about Palestinian public opinion, for which continued building in Jerusalem represents a red line.
After the storm caused by the delay in the United Nations vote over the Goldstone report on the Gaza conflict, and Washington's about-face in its policy on a construction freeze, Abbas began listening much more closely to public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza than to the U.S. president's envoys.
In both the Palestinian street and Abbas' Muqata compound, the U.S. change of heart was perceived as a betrayal. Consequently, Abbas' relinquishing the demand to freeze building in East Jerusalem would be perceived as surrender over "al-Quds" as a whole.
Abbas knows that in such a scenario (as in the case of the Goldstone report) not only Hamas, but also top Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organization figures will be ready to undermine his position. Even the Arab press seems to be an albatross around his neck.
In any case, Abbas' people believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a return to talks merely to win points internationally, not to reach a genuine final-status agreement. The Palestinian president, who has already announced his plans to retire, does not want to be perceived as an obsequious leader whose only legacy is surrender to U.S. demands.
Israeli officials will naturally celebrate the significant "achievement" of the non-renewal of negotiations and deepening relations with Washington, while Abbas will be viewed as a spoilsport, refusing every Israeli or American proposal. Netanyahu will be able to sell his colleagues in the Labor Party - and domestic public opinion - the claim that he is at least trying.
After all, who cares if there is no diplomatic horizon if the West Bank is quiet? But without a final-status agreement, this quiet will ultimately be revealed as more fragile than it seems.
Before the champagne is popped in the offices of the prime, foreign and defense ministers, let's remember that the absence of diplomatic prospects hardly represents a foreign policy achievement. Perhaps the time has come for Netanyahu to simply tell the Israeli public the truth: There will be no peace agreement with the PA without Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, that building there does not help reach such an agreement, and that maybe we need a building freeze, even a short one, to save the moribund peace process from an untimely death.
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