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This article is an updated and revised version of a piece by me published in Pajamas Media.

By Barry Rubin

Last September, President Barack Obama said in a major speech in New York, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas standing nearby, that there would be direct Israel-Palestinian negotiations in Washington by November 2009.

It didn’t happen.

The media didn’t ridicule the Obama Administration or point to this failure. Too bad. That kind of behavior by the media plays a positive role, in this case teaching the president to be more circumspect and skeptical about rapid progress.

Moreover, the president of the United States should never say that something is going to happen unless he knows that it will happen.

Now, in July 2010, the president stated that there would be direct soon and even before September:

“And my hope is, is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium [Israeli construction freeze that ends in September] has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success.”

But is there any reason that this deadline will be met? No.

Israel is eager for direct talks; the PA keeps finding excuses for opposing them. One of the PA’s arguments, made secretly to the United States, is that it fears going to direct negotiations will bring criticism from Arab states. The PA also fears that anything that looks like a concession is going to heighten tensions with Hamas, which will use such a step to portray the PA as traitorously moderate.

Notice that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan don’t oppose direct talks. So what the PA is really worried about, inasmuch as these expressions are sincere, are the radical forces: Syria, Hamas, and Iran. What, you might ask, would be most effective in overcoming that barrier. The answer is: a tougher U.S. line toward the radicals and a more credible determination to defend the moderates. But that is lacking in Obama policy even though the administration doesn’t even seem to realize that this kind of problem exists.

Here is how the White House sums up Obama’s phone conversation of July 9 with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas:

“The President noted the positive momentum generated by the recent improvements on the ground in Gaza and in the West Bank, the restraint shown by both sides in recent months, and progress in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks.”

There has been no progress in the “proximity,” that is indirect, talks. That’s a fact. As for “recent improvements” on the ground in Gaza, the truth is the exact opposite. Events have strengthened Hamas, namely the international intervention to reduce the extent of Israel’s embargo and the public support for Hamas. The PA is worse off in its competition with Hamas than it was a few months ago.

It is true there have been improvements in the West Bank and restraint by Israel and the PA.  At present, the PA doesn’t want violence. West Bank Palestinians are enjoying better conditions, though that doesn’t mean this situation will persist.

The PA is also demanding that Israel state its positions on borders and security measures before any talks can start. Yet what would happen if Israel did so? The PA would state that they are excessive and thus refuse to enter direct talks.

Moreover, while the PA at times uses phony claims that it is being flexible–see here–it never actually moves from the line held for many years: all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem; no limits on the sovereignty of the Palestinian state; a right of return for all refugees to live in Israel; and not even an agreement that a peace treaty fully and forever ends the conflict.

As far as direct talks goes, Obama doesn’t have any secret plan or classified information that you don’t know about to make him believe direct talks are going to happen. True, the U.S. government is putting on some pressure to convince the PA to change its stance. Yet this may well not be sufficient. The PA knows that the White House won’t go too far in this effort, and will never publicly denounce the PA for its obduracy (whereas it would not hesitate—as we have seen—to criticize Israel). Thus, the PA has ample reason to believe that if it does nothing, nothing will happen to it.

I am certainly not saying that direct talks are impossible, especially because the PA has a back-up plan: talk, give nothing, ensure the talks fail, and watch while Israel gets blamed for the impasse. The PA strategy is:

  • Ensure that talks go nowhere,
  • Claim on the basis of almost no evidence that it is building a state infrastructure (the economy and public order has improved but there has been no reform in the PA itself or the security forces), 
  • Declare independence some time in the future and watch as dozens of countries recognize it. How many of them will be from Europe?

The great advantage of this approach is that the PA intends to get a state without compromise or concession to Israel.

Moreover, by such methods, the PA can hope—as has happened numerous times—that Israel is blamed for the lack of progress and the U.S. government will pressure Israel.

These expectations may well be wrong—no unilateral independence declaration might ever happen—but this approach perfectly suits the needs of the PA leaders, letting them avoid internal anger at concessions, closing their options for total victory in future, and Western criticism or punishment.

The likelihood, then, is that Obama’s prediction might fail. Will the media remember that he went out once again on a limb and sawed it off?

Of course, just getting direct talks is no big deal—they existed between 1992 and 2000! If Obama had not come up with his demand for a construction freeze on all settlements–thus prompting the PA to harden its line–there would probably have been direct talks in 2009. Obama’s coddling of the PA has made things worse.

Now we are once again going to go through the old pattern in Israel-Palestinian relations.

The Washington Post editorial states the issue clearly:

“By reaffirming U.S. support for Israel and pressing for direct talks, Mr. Obama has created an opportunity to put both Palestinian leaders and Mr. Netanyahu to the test and to discover who is serious and who is not about a two-state settlement.”

Yet we’ve been through this numerous times before. What happens when Netanyahu proves he is for a two-state solution and Abbas shows he is against it in practice? Will the West put heavy pressure on the PA? Will it swing to a strong pro-Israel policy?

Of course not. And that will help guarantee that no progress is made toward peace.

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