Obama Desperately Needs a Plan B

After its meeting with Abbas on Monday, the U.S. will realize no framework agreement is possible.

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On the eve of the White House meeting on Monday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it looks like the American peace initiative launched eight months ago is at death’s door. There are fundamental gaps between the two parties, public demands that have hardened positions, and a deep lack of trust between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The Obama-Abbas meeting is not expected to make any dramatic changes to this bad situation. The Palestinian president will arrive at the Oval Office with intent to reject the U.S. framework paper. In the last year, Abbas has done everything to avoid a clash with the U.S. but his advisers convinced him that he too can say 'no' to Obama and fly back home safely.

The Americans, particularly U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have been focused in recent months on Plan A: Achieve a framework agreement of principles for resolving the core issues that would be a basis for continuing the negotiations. Thus far, however, there is almost no clause in the American document on which the Palestinians and Israelis agree.

Kerry has demonstrated great optimism about the framework document, but apparently misread the situation. It is not clear whether he misunderstood things or simply heard what he wanted to hear. He thought he could nail this document last December, but three months later, such an agreement is nowhere in sight.

After Monday’s meeting with Abbas, Washington will start to realize that no framework agreement is possible. When that happens, the Americans will have only 11 days to come up with Plan B. If by March 28 there is no plan that extends the negotiations, Israel will not implement the fourth prisoner release it had previously committed to. The distance from there to the collapse of the process is very short.

The United States will then have to choose between two bad options. One is to extract from Abbas a pledge not to turn to the United Nations and also press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make gestures such as releasing additional prisoners or curbing settlement construction, thus prolonging the negotiations without a framework document. Such a move will kick the can down the road and might avert the crisis for nine to 12 months, but won’t lead to anything except more futile talks.

The second option is to simply set down a framework document that presents the Americans’ principles for resolving the core issues, and invite the two sides to negotiate on that basis. This take-it-or-leave-it approach might lead to a breakthrough, but it is also fraught with the risk that both parties will reject it outright. Should that happen, the Obama administration will have no choice but to admit defeat and withdraw from the peace process.

The U.S. administration has one major thing going for it: Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas wants the process to collapse, nor does either want to be held responsible for its failure. Both would be pleased to preserve the status quo. If the Americans are still dreaming of some kind of progress, they will have to make clear to both leaders, particularly to Abbas, what the ramifications such failure would have on their relations with the United States.

Barack Obama walking down Cross Hall with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, September 1, 2010. Credit: Reuters

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