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Abbas Goes to Eleven

One of the clearest indicators as to whether you are negotiating with someone who actually wants to reach a deal, or alternatively has no intention of closing but is negotiating for other reasons, is how your partner responds to concessions on your part. Let’s say you’re trying to buy a baseball card for five dollars, and the seller wants ten. If you up your offer to seven, and he really wants to cut a deal, then he might lower it to nine. If he insists on sticking to ten, it probably means that either he’s a tough negotiator, or he thinks he can get ten from someone else.

But what if he responds by raising the price? What if he, to quote a great movie, “goes to eleven”?

Crazy as it sounds, this is what often happens in negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. According to widely held rumors, the main reason Netanyahu did not succeed in cutting a deal with Syria on the Golan during his previous term of office was that each time the Israelis raised their offer, the Syrians raised their demands, with the definition of the “Golan” moving increasingly West until it hit the Sea of Galilee. With Jordan and Egypt, however, it was the opposite: An agreement could be reached because both sides wanted it.

So, what about the Palestinians? All too often it seems as though the more Israel gives, the greater the demands. Everyone seems to think that the final outcome of the deal will be somewhere between what Netanyahu is saying and what Obama is saying: A sovereign Palestinian state taking up between 97 and 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, maybe some part of Jerusalem, and some kind of formula invented to deal with the “right of return,” the unity of Jerusalem, and so on.

Now that Netanyahu has conceded the biggest part of this — the idea of statehood itself — we might have expected Abbas to show a little give on his position. Instead, the demands have suddenly increased. The Palestinian leader is now insisting on “territorial continuity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

Okay, now look at a map. Once Israelis toyed with the idea of bridges and tunnels, some way of moving safely between the two parts of Palestine. But something about the phrase “territorial continuity” suggests more than this. It means actual land. In other words: Slicing Israel in half.

This is not the first time the Palestinians have raised the issue of some kind of land bridge between the West Bank and Gaza, but it is the first time we’re hearing about it ever since a new American president purportedly breathed new life into the chances of “peace.” And it comes at a time when Palestinian land is currently held by two different regimes, one of which is not just opposed in principle to any peace agreement, but is not even willing to find a formula for Palestinian unity.

Why might Abbas have chosen such a time to go to eleven? We can suggest two possibilities.

1. Abbas is politically constrained by his own regime to thwart peace. The PLO was born out of a revolutionary ideology that maintained that all the Palestinians’ problems would be solved only with the destruction of Israel. Every peaceful step its leader, Yasser Arafat, took, was balanced with an explanation as to why this really would lead to the ultimate goal — the infamous “Phased Plan,” the redoubled commitment to terrorism and “resistance,” and the constant raising of demands that guaranteed the impossibility of any agreement, such as repatriating Palestinian refugees within Israel’s borders. This game came to a head in 2000, when Arafat responded to Ehud Barak’s very generous offers by launching the Second Intifada. The assumption that Abbas is not similarly constrained to continue the revolution is one born out of hope and convenience, but it’s far from clear that it is grounded in fact. Under this theory, there is no actual possibility of peace, not just because there is no single Palestinian body to talk to, but because even the more “moderate” one is moderate only in its rhetoric.

2. Abbas is taking advantage of the new American regime to jockey for a better bargaining position. Under this theory, Abbas is open to the possibility of a deal. But he has carefully been watching the changing winds in Washington and Europe and figured out that all anyone seems to care about is Israeli settlements. The focus and pressure are now on Israel. So why make the negotiations easy for Jerusalem or Washington? It is far from clear that West Bank Palestinians actually want Gazans freely entering their territory — but who cares? This is a demand that will never be met, so he might as well make it in order to have something to concede on later on. From a negotiating standpoint, this is precisely the moment to raise new demands that sound reasonable at first blush but have zero chance of acceptance — like the refugees-in-Tel-Aviv idea. He has nothing to lose.

The first theory seems to be out of the question as far as Western diplomacy is concerned. Doesn’t matter if it might be true; the entire diplomatic world feeds its young on its presumptive rejection. But the second doesn’t make things look much better: The result of putting pressure on Israel, it seems, has not been to bring the parties any closer together: Every time Bibi raises his bid for the baseball card, Abbas raises his price.

Abbas has played this game pretty well for now. For months, Israel has faced a level of international pressure not seen since the days of Jimmy Carter, or maybe George H.W. Bush. Dutifully, he has turned down the terror flames coming out of the West Bank for the time being. Objectively, however, Abbas should have absolutely no bargaining position: It is his government that has thwarted every opportunity for national revival the Israelis and the West have given him, has wasted hundreds of millions of Western dollars on corruption rather than development, has continued supporting terrorism, and now has lost any credibility on his ability to deliver on any agreement so long as Hamas reigns in the south. Yet despite all this, all Westerners seem to care about is whether it is “illegal” or a “war crime” for a family in Efrat or Ariel to build a house for their newlywed son. Yes, these people are truly the central obstacles to peace.

If Abbas were serious about peace, he would take Netanyahu up on his offer to meet with him directly to discuss economic development — the very thing that theoreticians of the new world-order insist is the key to the post-war future.


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