Analysis

Obama the Inquisitor vs. Netanyahu, Abbas

Obama’s message to the two leaders: They can cooperate with the U.S. peace initiative and make progress, or go it alone after the talks fail, which will not be pleasant going.

One of the things U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when they meet at the White House next Monday is, “What’s your plan if the attempt to formulate a framework for further negotiations fails and the peace process breaks down?” U.S. officials say Obama will ask Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the same thing when he comes calling at the White House on March 17.

Obama will ask Netanyahu what he plans to do about the Palestinian population in the West Bank, how he’ll deal with the Palestinian plans to seek statehood through various UN agencies and how he intends to stop the increasing boycotts against Israel and the deterioration of its position in the European Union.

Abbas will be asked by the U.S. president how he thinks unilateral UN moves will bring him closer to an independent state and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank, and how he intends to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of PA workers if the United States and the European Union cut off his funding.

Obama’s message to the two leaders is that they have two options: They can cooperate with the U.S. initiative and make progress, or go it alone and be forced to deal with the ensuing reality. Because the reality the two leaders will face after the talks fail will not be a pleasant one.

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Netanyahu would like to focus his meeting with Obama on Iran, but the White House has other plans. Obama’s advisers gave a preemptive briefing to New York Times political reporter Mark Landler at which they clearly framed the Obama-Netanyahu meeting as dealing mainly with the Palestinian issue.

Senior White House officials told the Times that after a year in which the Palestinian issue has been handled almost exclusively by Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama believes that now, prior to the decisions by Netanyahu and Abbas, is the right time for him to intervene personally.

“The president wouldn’t want to run any risk that it was the lack of his involvement that would make the difference between success and failure,” a senior U.S. official told the Times.

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The framework document for negotiations that Kerry and special envoy Martin Indyk have been working on for the past two months is meant to provide guidelines for continuing the peace talks and reaching a permanent settlement by the end of 2014.

The document will refer to all the core issues. Some will be addressed in more detail, such as setting the boundaries of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, security arrangements in the Jordan Valley, and the mutual recognition of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. Other issues, like a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and the refugee problem, will be addressed more vaguely.

The Americans are seeking maximum agreement for the terms, but at this stage this goal seems very distant. The administration has another month to work – until March 29, when the fourth group of prisoners is supposed to be released. If no agreement is reached on the framework document, it is difficult to see the prisoner release going forward, and if it doesn’t, the route to the talks’ collapse is short.

Obama’s meeting with Abbas is much more critical than his meeting with Netanyahu. After spending a month mostly in talks with the Israeli side, Kerry and Indyk last week began talking to the Palestinians - and these sessions were not successful, to say the least.

Two Kerry-Abbas meetings held in Paris last week ended on a worse note than they began. Abbas rejected many of Kerry’s proposals and harshly accused the Americans of repeating their tricks of the past by presenting Israeli proposals as if they were American ones.

Abbas is in a serious bind. When he agreed in July 2013 to nine months of negotiations, it was mainly to secure the release of the 104 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel. Abbas now understands that the talks he entered as a tactical move have become a process that requires making irrevocable decisions, including some that will be hard to swallow, like recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Rejection of Kerry’s proposals is liable to be a death blow to the entire Palestinian national movement. Fatah will disappear from the political map and the issue of a Palestinian state will be pushed off the global priority list. Moreover, such a rejection would hand the prize of a lifetime to Netanyahu and the Israeli political right. Instead of Netanyahu being put to the test, the prime minister will be able to declare openly that there is indeed no partner for peace.

We will not have to wait long to know where things are heading.

Reuters