By Barry Rubin
It never ceases to amaze me how hysteria and mystification so clouds peoples’ minds over the Arab-Israeli (or Israeli-Palestinian) conflict. Consider this simple point of logic which you may not see explained anywhere else. And see the point at the end about President Barack Obama.
Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas claims that he can’t negotiate with Israel if Israel once again begins to construct buildings on existing settlements after a nine-month freeze on construction.
Let’s evaluate this statement.
First, Abbas knew that the freeze would last nine months and might not be renewed when it ended in September. If he wanted to give Israel an incentive to continue it–by showing that this Israeli concession, brought progress toward peace and some advantage for Israel–Abbas could have acted. Instead, he stalled until the very last moment. For weeks, the United States begged and pressed him to return to talks.
Second, if the Palestinians negotiate a two-state solution they will get–worst-case analysis–almost all of the West Bank. There will be no Jewish settlements in that territory. The settlements will be gone. All the roads and buildings Israel built (unless dismantled in the days before the agreement’s implementation) will go to the Palestinians.
So if Abbas and the Palestinians are horrified by Israeli construction, wouldn’t it have made sense for them to negotiate real fast? But, on the contrary, they stretch out the process year after year after year, continually finding excuses for doing so.
Remember that the PA refused to negotiate for well over a year after January 2009. All that time Israel was building on settlements. Then for the last nine months when Israel wasn’t building in the West Bank, the PA still refused to negotiate.
Let’s now provide a full timeline:
Phase One: From 1992 until late in 2000, the PLO, and later the PA negotiated with Israel at a time when there were no limits on construction within settlements. They were, however, in no hurry to make a deal and, in fact, killed the talks in 2000. Incidentally, Israel made a huge concession from its previous positions to begin the process in 1993: No new settlements or territorial expansion of existing ones. It keept that commitment. The PLO and PA also made some “concessions”: They would fight against terrorism. They didn’t. They never raised as a bargaining point the idea of a freeze on construction in existing settlements.
Phase Two: Then from 2000 to 2009–a decade–the PA refused direct any sustained peace negotiations at a time when there were no limits on construction within settlements. They never raised as a bargaining point the idea that they would end the violence (2000-2005) or that they would negotiate in exchange for a freeze on construction in existing settlements. That was President Obama’s idea in mid-2009 and they rejected it.
Phase Three: After Israel did freeze construction, the PA wasted nine months–knowing the clock was ticking on the temporary freeze–without making any moves to accelerate, or even hold, negotiations.
Thus, the PA has wasted almost 20 years, during which thousands of buildings have been added to Israeli settlements.
Here is a fundamental flaw in the assumption that the Palestinians are desperately eager to get a state and end their suffering. They don’t seem so eager at all. Why? Because the Palestinian leadership has long argued that it is more important to conquer all of Israel–or reach an agreement that didn’t get in the way of pursuing that goal–than to make compromises and get a two-state solution.
What does the PA want? An independent Palestinian state given as a gift by the world rather than requiring mutual compromise with Israel. That doesn’t require negotiations, it requires a lack of negotiations.
If Abbas walks away from talks he will not be crying that creation of a Palestinian state has been delayed. On the contrary, he will be smiling that he escaped from what most PA leaders–though not Prime Minister Salam Fayad–view as the peace trap.
Incidentally, note that when President Barack Obama made his upbeat interpretation of the “peace process” one of the main themes in his September 23 UN speech, he was totally aware that the negotiations were probably on the verge of collapse due to the termination of the freeze. It could be argued that by playing up the issue he was trying to encourage everyone to keep going, but how can you stake your diplomatic reputation on a card that is about to bring down a house of cards? That’s somewhere between being irresponsible and suicidal.