Give them something to lose
Whatever prior commitments Netanyahu and Abbas made to their respective constituencies must be set aside throughout the duration of direct talks.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced earlier this week that he will consider Israel fully to blame for the collapse of the negotiations that were scheduled to commence yesterday, should it resume construction in the settlements. That statement could be seen as a reiteration of last week's reports by several news outlets that the PA intended to pull out of the peace talks with Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to extend the partial West Bank settlement freeze when it expires on September 26.
Even as they were getting ready to commence with direct talks, the PA and Israel were both preparing for the day when they will pull out of them. The announcements made by Abbas and others in the PA were a response to information they had that, regardless of what Netanyahu may hint about a continuation to the freeze, he will not extend it in the end. Therefore, Abbas is already making it clear to the world why he plans to quit the talks at the end of the month.
Last month, I met with senior PA and Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan at his office in Ramallah. Dahlan told me: "We know that Netanyahu signed a letter to [Likud MK and minister] Benny Begin and others promising them not to extend the settlement freeze." The letter, Dahlan explained, confirmed a secret deal that the premier had made with Begin. Dahlan added that Netanyahu's plan was to reveal the existence of the letter when the nine-month period of the freeze elapses, and say: "'Look, I signed this as an earlier commitment, and before we entered direct talks. I can't back out now, it would be at a huge political cost for me.'"
Dahlan added that when that time comes, the Palestinians' plan is to walk out of the talks.
The fact that both the Palestinians and the Israelis are entering the U.S.-sponsored negotiations in bad faith is not only disturbing, but extremely dangerous. If indeed Netanyahu does not extend the freeze beyond the deadline, rest assured he will have hammered the last nail in the PA's coffin.
Likewise, Israel will be left without a partner for peace or even cooperation in security matters on the Palestinian side.
The failure of direct talks will automatically bolster Hamas and strengthen its standing among the Palestinians. The Islamist organization is already preparing for the moment it can tell the Palestinian public: "We told you so. Talking with the Israelis can only lead to more talks, while they continue to take away our land to build settlements." In fact, Hamas' killing of four Israeli settlers in the southern Hebron Hills on Tuesday, and another, failed attack the following night, show how far it will go to spoil the direct talks, and to make its presence felt.
What is crucial at this point, then, is for the Palestinians and Israelis to find a way to continue the direct talks, and not allow the issue of ongoing settlement construction to be a deal breaker. After all, according to President Abbas, the so-called proximity talks and the insistence on direct talks conditioned on a prior agreement by Israel to freeze construction in the territories, were American ideas, not Palestinian or Israeli ones.
The United States' role as a mediator allows it to offer creative solutions to both sides. To be effective, these solutions must address Abbas' and Netanyahu's concerns at home. Abbas does not want an end to the settlement freeze, while Netanyahu does not want his coalition to collapse on him. Is there a middle ground?
Knowing what we know about how unconvinced both Palestinians and Israelis are about the chances of success in Washington, President Obama might do well to establish a ground rule to the effect that, whatever prior commitments were made by either Netanyahu or Abbas to their own constituencies, these commitments must be set aside throughout the duration of direct talks. This point should be communicated clearly and publicly to Netanyahu and Abbas.
If Netanyahu agrees to this proposal, he can accomplish two goals: He will have appeased the settler movement by not formally extending the settlement freeze. This will allow the premier to play a double game: to show good will to the United States and the international community, while at the same time keeping his Palestinian partner engaged in direct talks.
So long as negotiations continue, Netanyahu will be giving Abbas something very concrete to lose if he chooses to walk away from direct talks. Furthermore, Netanyahu will in this way protect Israel's image internationally and prevent the world from blaming Israel for the failure of the talks.
For the Palestinians, continuing to engage in the talks will be the only way to guarantee that the bulldozers and cement mixers remain idle in the West Bank.
Fadi Elsalameen is the CEO of www.palestinenote.com, an Internet newspaper about Palestine, Israel and the Middle East.