One only needed to view the Haaretz and Jerusalem Post on Wednesday night and Thursday morning for a perfect picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one corner, Netanyahu: Israel’s government will fall if settlement freeze continues. In the other, Abbas seeks Arab backing to nix talks. Their respective audiences jeered accordingly, one calling for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation and the other for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s.
This is the environment in which direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians are supposed to take root.
The prospect doesn’t look good for President Barack Obama. Hardly any discernible progress is visible after three months of indirect talks, creating an immediate barrier to direct talks. His greatest achievement is building the situation up to a decision on direct talks, something that Israeli’s lobby and the US Congress played a significant role in. Obama would avoid a confrontation at the UN in September if he could somehow convince Netanyahu that freezing settlements in the West Bank, and possibly East Jerusalem, favors both Israel’s and his own long-term interests.
But the situation has stood in this position all along, making it hard to believe indirect talks have moved an inch.
One then wonders how much further indirect talks could be had Obama kept Israel’s focus on them. He’s making the fatal mistake that, because no US president has truly engaged the Palestinians, he could get by with pledges and rhetoric. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a theater of action where words are inherently distrusted. He hasn’t learned either, again pledging to Abbas his full support to a Palestinian state in exchange for direct talks.
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even joined in, presumably because Palestinians believe they are so pro-Israeli.
But they offer no definition of any kind, meaning this state could potentially be envisioned as weak. A pledge is nothing new. Obama offered one during his first days, in Cairo, and many times until this point. Yet to this very day Obama and the White House are trying to pressure Abbas into direct negotiations while the status quo still favors Israel. A settlement freeze is a means to altering the status quo and, perhaps more importantly, perceptions of the current reality, which is why the Palestinians consider a freeze so important.
And why they believe Washington isn’t serious without one.
Abbas is touring the region before meeting with the Arab League to approve or reject direct talks; soon he will meet with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. Many reports indicate that Abbas and the Arab League are unwilling to enter direct talks without any compensation. Risking their own necks for Netanyahu’s isn’t a persuasive offer. The only person currently saying Abbas might enter direct talks is Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, necessitating a bowl of salt.
Abbas didn’t meet with Netanyahu while they both visited King Abdullah in Jordan, although they are sparring through the media.
In a speech after returning home, Netanyahu elaborated, "We talked about promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians and in the whole region. I welcome Jordan's efforts for progress toward these goals. The formula for peace is a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”
This sounds like a rejection of Abbas’s offer to station NATO forces along Palestine’s border, possibly even preconditions for a Palestinian state. Definitely not what Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, meant when he told reporters, "the key to direct negotiations lies in the Israeli prime minister's hands." Erekat renewed his demand for a settlement freeze, explicitly negotiating, "These are not Palestinian conditions, they are Israeli obligations which must be met.”
The Palestinians and Arab League couldn’t care less if Netanyahu’s government topples and takes Lieberman down too. Their experience tells them that any other Israeli politicians are an upgrade. Abbas also realizes that Netanyahu’s clock has less time than his own, that he could wait him out, and that he might find himself too weak domestically if crumbles to Netanyahu. Theoretically the White House would also have an easier time with Kadima or Labor in power.
In laying the irony on the table rather than hide his precarious position and devise a way out, it’s almost like Netanyahu is actively calling for his own end. Suicide has always been considered a noble end for the trapped.