The decision of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to a freeze on building homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank has earned him little credit either in Europe or among his country’s Arab foes. Rather than respond to Israel’s gesture aimed at re-starting peace talks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas raised the ante today by telling the PLO Central Council that he won’t engage in talks unless the international community recognize the 1967 lines as the borders of a Palestinian state and unless Israel halt all construction work not only in the settlements but also in Israel’s capital Jerusalem. In other words, until the Israelis make concessions that ensure that nothing be left to negotiate about, he won’t engage in negotiations.
Abbas, whose term in office will probably be extended without holding an election because his Fatah Party knows it might lose to the Islamists of Hamas, has been telegraphing his lack of interest in talks all year. Given the fact that the Palestinian public still won’t accept any deal with Israel no matter where the borders are set, it’s not likely that this will change. Having turned down a Palestinian state in virtually all of the territories as well as East Jerusalem when former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert offered it last year, it’s hard to understand why anyone would think the supposedly moderate Abbas would make peace now. But the focus of pressure and international speculation about peaceful intentions continues to be put on Netanyahu, not on the Palestinians.
Thus the conceit of Ethan Bronner’s latest “Mideast Memo” in the New York Times, which ponders the sincerity of Netanyahu’s desire for peace. The notion that Netanyahu is possibly undergoing some kind of conversion to a love for peace is, of course, absurd. His formal embrace this past summer of a two-state solution was a departure but he has always been on record as favoring a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The question is whether or not he’s willing to bend to the dictates of the West as to borders or the terms of Palestinian statehood, not whether a peace agreement would provide the Palestinians with sovereignty over part of the country.
But the frustrating aspect of this discussion isn’t so much in the condescension toward Netanyahu, but rather in the way the peace process is framed—that is, in such a way as to put the entire onus on Israel to make concessions, while the Palestinians continue complete refusal to accept the concept of peace with a Jewish state is virtually ignored. The point is, rather than wasting time worrying whether editorial writers at Ha’aretz or President Shimon Peres think Netanyahu is sincere, foreign correspondents based in Israel might want to spend a little more time paying attention to the fact that the political culture of the Palestinians makes peace an impossibility even for their allegedly moderate leader.