You have to admire Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiating savvy. Someone less shrewd might have assumed that with the whole world seemingly desperate to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks, the party that refused would be penalized. Abbas correctly calculated that by refusing to talk, he could reap concrete benefits even before negotiations began.
He has already secured a 10-month settlement freeze from Israel. Initially, that was supposed to be matched by gestures toward normalization from Arab states. But the Arab states refused; Washington declined to press; and in the end, Israel gave something for nothing.
Yet Abbas still said no. So now the world is busily seeking more unilateral Israeli concessions to entice him to the table. Haaretz reported today that at a Quartet meeting last Wednesday, the European Union and Russia proposed demanding that Israel allow Orient House (the PA’s de facto foreign ministry) and other PA government offices to reopen in East Jerusalem. That is effectively a demand that Israel concede Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem even before the talks begin: while embassies are located in foreign countries, government offices are usually located in one’s own.
U.S. envoy George Mitchell, in his PBS interview earlier this month, declared that Washington was also seeking additional Israeli concessions to lure Abbas to the table. “What we have suggested to the Israelis is a series of steps and actions that they could take that would encourage President Abbas to enter the discussions,” he said, though declining to specify.
But nobody worries about enticing Israel to the table, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the past nine months endlessly proclaiming his eagerness to resume talks. Hence Washington felt no need to press Arab states to reciprocate for the settlement freeze, nor did the Quartet feel a need to reward Israel for this gesture.
The U.S. did try to secure a Quartet statement praising the freeze in November, but Russia reportedly refused. Why? Washington’s draft included a call for renewed talks aimed at reconciling both sides’ goals, and described Israel’s goal as a “Jewish state” in borders that, inter alia, “reflect the developments” that have occurred since 1967. Russia said it opposed both defining Israel as a Jewish state and adapting the border to the settlement blocs, and therefore refused to acknowledge these as legitimate Israeli goals. Thus even as the EU and Russia publicly support Palestinian final-status demands on borders and Jerusalem, the Quartet has deemed Israel’s demands so illegitimate that they don’t even deserve mention as aspirations.
So here’s the bottom line: because Abbas is being recalcitrant, the world is punishing Israel by demanding more concessions from it. That’s a highly ineffective way to run negotiations, since it encourages further recalcitrance rather than compromise. But if that’s how the Quartet wants to run things, Israel needs to start playing this game, too.
Hence, instead of constantly declaring his eagerness for talks, Netanyahu must start setting his own conditions for renewed negotiations. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state might be a good place to start.