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By Barry Rubin

What will be the next developments regarding U.S.-Israel relations and the Israel-Palestinian “peace process,” and Israeli politics. It’s possible to make some good predictions, or at least to present the most likely scenarios. 

On September 26, Israel’s one-year freeze on building inside West Bank settlements will end. Last October, the original commitment was extended to any construction in Jerusalem outside the pre-1967 ceasefire lines. The Palestinian Authority (PA) now demands this freeze be extended as a precondition for it entering direct talks with Israel. The PA also insists that Israel accept the 1967 borders as defining the boundary between itself and a Palestinian state and an international force to patrol them. 

The PA’s goal is to use the bait of direct talks to get the United States to accept these and other preconditions and force them on Israel or, just as good, to blame Israel for not giving in and creating a rift in U.S.-Israel relations. Israel does not have a similar option since whatever happens this U.S. government won’t publicly criticize the PA.

Even if Israel were to meet these conditions, it is not entirely clear that the PA would then talk directly, and either way it would still not have made any compromises of its own on issues vital to Israel. This is, then, the old Palestinian leadership’s game of demanding Israeli concessions, yielding nothing even if it won them, and then insisting that what Israel has given up is now the irreversible basis for future talks during which even more unilateral Israeli concessions are demanded.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is thus presented with an unpalatable option. It is definitely not going to agree in advance to accept the 1967 borders as the final frontier before negotiations commence. This is beyond what the Israeli government offered at the 2000 Camp David talks and in the Clinton plan of that year, when it proposed what are historically known as “minor border modifications” and later spoke of “territorial swaps.” 

Israel is certainly not going to make such a major concession when the issues that it wants resolved—resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the state of Palestine, an end to the conflict, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state (in exchange for recognition of Palestine as an Arab state), the status of Jerusalem’s Old City and the Western Wall of the Temple, and security arrangements—have not even been discussed.

This situation also presents a challenge for U.S. policy. The Obama Administration cannot support all of the PA’s preconditions and succeed. Yet if it doesn’t meet them all, the PA can just keep refusing to talk. And despite the “pressure” Obama is reportedly putting on, given his worldview and strategy, he is unlikely to do anything no matter how the PA behaves. Of course, the PA leadership understands this and, at any rate, is more afraid of its own people and Hamas calling it a traitor than of Obama’s phone calls to Abbas. 

This sets up the ridiculous situation–but one common in the era of self-blaming and appeasement-oriented Western diplomacy–in which powerful Western states must beg far weaker and dependent Third World counterparts (or even groups like Hamas or Hizballah) to give them concessions and favors. 

After all, supposedly the Palestinians are suffering under an occupation (which mostly ended in 1994-1996) and yearning for a state. Shouldn’t they be eager for a deal, ready to compromise with the United States and make concessions to Israel in order to get their independence? Instead, the bizarre misreading of the situation seems to put the PA, which is now reduced to half the territory (without the Gaza Strip) it claims to rule, in the drivers’ seat.

In Lebanon, Hizballah pushes around a UN force mandated by the world community. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas celebrates its reduction of the embargo by firing rockets at Israel while much of the world criticizes Israel and pleads with Hamas to accept concessions and money.

And so in this topsy-turvey situation it is mostly Netanyahu who will face difficult choices. If he reinstitutes a freeze—despite the fact that there has been absolutely no progress during the one-year of his unilateral concession—there could be serious domestic political repercussions. One or more parties might well walk out of the coalition, forcing him to find substitutes, though he could survive politically far easier than foreign observers think.

Nevertheless, this situation is at odds with Netanyahu’s longer-term plan. He has been hoping to continue in office into 2011, call elections at some point, win, and take another term as prime minister. If he’s in office until 2015 there is plenty of time to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

This seems to be a realistic scenario. There’s no other viable candidate. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is widely disliked in his own Labour Party; Tzippi Livni has been a failure as opposition leader and her Kadima party has no alternative policy to offer. 

Within his own Likud party, Netanyahu has been able to manage rebellious right-wingers. And the prime minister is popular among a public that understandably sees no other route, is skeptical of more unilateral concessions, and has no illusions about the PA’s willingness or ability to make peace. Terrorism is down and the economy is doing remarkably well, whatever its shortcomings, compared to other countries. 

So the problem for Netanyahu is: can he find some formula that will please the United States without causing an internal political battle? An example is to have a freeze without formally announcing it or promising to sustain it a given length of time. In doing so, he knows that this will not result in peace but merely will avoid having Israel shoulder the blame if the PA still refuses to talk. 

The PA will, of course, look for any possible way to blame Israel while it happily does everything possible to avoid direct talks. Indeed, it prefers a strategy of blaming Israel plus not negotiating over a strategy of making peace and obtaining a state. If there are talks it will make big demands knowing that the negotiations will break down. Then it will wait for the world to hand it a state on a silver platter. It is willing to wait decades. And that’s probably what will happen.

It is possible that U.S. and European policymakers understand this reality, but for reasons of their own want to pretend that peace is possible in short order. What they really want is direct talks as fast as possible so they can claim something is happening. 

Supposedly, this makes the Arab world like them, shows them to be great statesmen, and lets them get on with other issues like Iraq, Iranian nuclear, and Afghanistan. 

The Obama Administration is desperate to claim some diplomatic success before the November congressional elections. It will probably not bash Israel before that date. If it has direct talks or has thrown up its hands at frustration with the PA by then, good U.S.-Israel bilateral relations may well continue well into 2011.

For possible scenarios consult the list below:

Here’s the situation: There may be a three-way meeting at which the PA will try to convince the US: You can have wonderful direct talks if you only make Israel give us everything we want. Don’t you want a great diplomatic success before the November elections?

Option 1: US agrees, presses Israel for some unilateral concessions. Netanyahu offers something.or even meets US requests.

A. US accepts Netanyahu compromise (maybe gives something to Israel), PA says No. No direct talks. US blames PA but says nothing publicly. Mahmoud Abbas tells cheering Palestinian crowd: We were steadfast!

B. US accepts Netanyahu compromise (maybe gives something to Israel), PA says No. No direct talks. US blames Israel. Hopes perhaps government falls and Kadima comes into power or coalition ready to make bigger concessions (don’t bet on that happening.) Avoids open rift in U.S.-Israel relations until early 2011.  Mahmoud Abbas tells cheering Palestinian crowd: We were steadfast!

C. PA accepts Israeli concessions and asks for US promises and assurances. Gets more. Goes to talks. Sabotages talks. During talks, President Obama points to ongoing negotiations as proof of his diplomatic success. U.S.-Israel relations remain good. PA happy with gains which it will use as a basis in the next round. Mahmoud Abbas tells cheering Palestinian crowd: We were steadfast! 

Option 2: US asks Israel to give the PA everything it wants. Netanyahu offers part.

A. US accepts Netanyahu compromise (maybe gives something to Israel), PA says No. No direct talks. US blames PA but says nothing publicly. Mahmoud Abbas tells cheering Palestinian crowd: We were steadfast!

B. US angry that Netanyahu doesn’t give everything for nothing. US blames Israel but avoids open rift in U.S.-Israel relations until early 2011. Mahmoud Abbas tells cheering Palestinian crowd: We were steadfast!

C. PA takes what is offered then demands even more before going to talks. US angry at PA but says nothing publicly. Mahmoud Abbas tells cheering Palestinian crowd: We were steadfast!

D. PA accepts Israeli concessions and asks for US promises and assurances. Gets more. Goes to talks. Sabotages talks. PA happy with gains which it will use as a basis in the next round. Mahmoud Abbas tells cheering Palestinian crowd: We were steadfast! 

Option 3: Many meetings, speeches, leaders flying around the world. Plans. Absolutely nothing happens. U.S.-Israel relations remain good. Mahmoud Abbas tells cheering Palestinian crowd: We were steadfast!

 
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) CenterMiddle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).     

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