Sunday, March 9, 2014

Will Obama Blame Israel for Abbas’ ‘No?’

by Jonathan S. Tobin

According to today’s New York Times, the conceit behind President Obama’s recent attacks on Israel was to redress what he felt was an imbalanced approach to American diplomacy. Apparently the president thinks Secretary of State John Kerry has been too nice to the Israelis during the course of his effort to revive peace talks with the Palestinians. Thus, the president has decided to play “bad cop,” to Kerry’s “good cop” in dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the president’s assumption of the role of the bully in his Bloomberg interview with Jeffrey Goldberg was entirely convincing, the Israelis may be forgiven for wondering when the good cop will start making nice with them. This is, after all, the same secretary that has threatened Israel with boycotts and even a third intifada if they were not sufficiently forthcoming in the negotiations, leaving the impression that the American tandem was conducting a coordinated campaign of pressure rather than a more nuanced effort to convince Jerusalem to make concessions.

Having paid for Palestinian participation in the talks with the release over 100 terrorist murderers and reportedly already conceded a withdrawal from at least 90 percent of the West Bank once the talks began, the Israelis had good reason to be surprised by Obama’s decision to pile. But while Washington has been obsessively focused on forcing the Israelis to accept a two-state solution and a framework for negotiations that they have already agreed to, the administration seems equally determined to ignore what the Palestinians are doing. Thus the statements from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who received fulsome praise from the president for his commitment to peace, that he will never agree to a key element of Kerry’s framework is being ignored by the White House.

In a statement released by the official PA press agency WAFA, Abbas reiterated what he has been saying for months. He will not sign on to any framework, let alone a peace treaty that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. In Abbas’ words, “There is no way. We will not accept.” The question now is what are Obama and Kerry going to do about it? Their answer will speak volumes not only about the future of Kerry’s talks but their commitment to a genuine peace that will ensure rather than endanger Israel’s survival.

Abbas’ latest “no” leaves President Obama and Kerry with a crucial choice.

They can insist that Abbas budge on the Jewish state issue because they know that without it the Palestinians are not conceding the end of the conflict. Unless Abbas says those two little words it will be obvious that despite Obama’s praise for him, he is just as committed to a vision of Palestinian nationalism that is inextricably tied to a war on Zionism as was his predecessor Yasir Arafat. By walking away from the talks over this point, Abbas will be delivering the fourth Palestinian no to an Israeli offer of statehood after previous rejections in 2000, 2001 and 2008.

If so, Obama will be placed in a position where he would be obligated to place the blame for Kerry’s failure just as President Bill Clinton had to blame Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David Summit as well as the subsequent Taba Conference. But given his antipathy for Netanyahu, the Israelis have to be wondering whether the president will find some reason to let Abbas off the hook.

Even worse is the possibility that they will cave in to Abbas’ demands rather than sticking to their commitment to Israel on the Jewish state issue.

While the Palestinians’ unwillingness to give up their hope of swamping Israel with refugees via a “right of return” and the pressure exerted on the PA from Hamas and Islamic Jihad has always made Kerry’s effort seem like a fool’s errand, he has conducted himself as if the chances for success were good. That’s why he readily accepted the notion that the Palestinians would acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state because in exchange for such a statement they would be rewarded with the territory and sovereignty they say they want.
In other words, while Kerry has always been prepared to give the Palestinians a peace deal that was more favorable to their ambitions than to Israel’s rights, he was still insisting that the end result must be genuine peace rather than a pause in the conflict. If his framework is altered to allow Abbas to avoid saying those two words, Kerry is aware that Israel can have no confidence that it will get peace no matter how much land they give up.

Obama and Kerry believed their bad cop/bad copy routine would be enough to bludgeon the Israelis into giving away the West Bank and perhaps even a share of Jerusalem and they appear to be right about that assumption. But, like all other would-be Middle East peacemakers they forgot or ignored the need to get the Palestinians to agree to peace.
If the administration allows Abbas to escape accountability on this crucial point it will expose their peace efforts as worse than a sham.  As I wrote yesterday, the Jewish state is not a contrived controversy but a concept that lies at the heart of the conflict. Israelis have repeatedly shown their willingness to take risks for peace but the Palestinians are still stuck with a historical narrative that won’t allow them to give up their dream of Israel’s extinction.
Abbas has no intention of ever signing a peace treaty with Israel or granting it legitimacy as a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or how much of Jerusalem they obtain. But if the United States can’t be honest about this even when Abbas gives them a flat no to one of the basic principles of peace, then it is clear that the purpose of the negotiations isn’t a resolution of the conflict but another excuse to bash Israel. If, after Kerry’s mission fails or even if it continues on terms that are incompatible with peace, Israelis should expect to be blamed no matter what they have conceded or how many times Abbas has said no. But so long as Abbas refuses to say two words, those charges will be lies.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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