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Good News and Bad News for Abbas

There’s both good news and bad news for Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. The good news is that Secretary of State John Kerry is heading back to the Middle East determined to pursue what virtually no one else believes is an opportunity to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This is good for Abbas because it gives him a chance to play the reluctant prima donna who needs to be bribed to return to peace talks. Even if he never sits down at the table or, as is even more likely, doesn’t stay long if he ever does, Abbas will be able to extract concessions from Israel in order to satisfy Kerry’s hubristic desire to attempt a feat that better men and women than he failed to accomplish.

The bad news? It’s that Secretary of State John Kerry is headed back to the Middle East determined to pursue what virtually no one else believes is an opportunity to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Kerry’s insistence on paying more than the usual lip service to peace negotiations puts Abbas in exactly the position that he has been striving to avoid since fleeing the table after former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered him virtually everything he wanted including statehood and a share of Jerusalem. Abbas doesn’t want to act in a manner that would place the blame for the lack of peace where it belongs (on himself). But he also can’t afford to be trapped into a process that will allow his Hamas and Islamic Jihad rivals to portray him as being willing to accept the legitimacy of Israel. So while Kerry may think he’s being very clever in wheedling concessions out of Netanyahu in order to get Abbas to talk, it is just as likely that, as has happened often in the past, the attempt to push the Palestinians into an agreement will probably do more to create instability than it will bring the region closer to peace.

As Haaretz notes, Abbas is trying to thread the needle when it comes to balancing his desire to avoid being made to appear the obstacle to peace with his equally ardent desire to avoid negotiating with Israel. Thus, he may be softening some of the preconditions he has sought to obtain in advance of talks that would deliver Israeli concessions without the Palestinians giving anything in return. But, as the Israelis already know, the last thing Abbas is likely to do is to keep talking even if he does agree to sit down with Kerry and Netanyahu.

But though virtually no one (except perhaps Kerry) actually believes an accord is possible, the fallout from these talks about talks is not insignificant. As Haaretz reports:

Previously, Abbas had insisted that even before the talks begin, Netanyahu must present a map of the future Palestinian state’s borders; he has now given up this demand. He will now agree to conduct negotiations based on the 1967 lines, land swaps included. Due to Netanyahu’s categorical rejection of this term, Abbas is willing to make do with a commitment from Kerry that the U.S. administration’s position is that the borders of the Palestinian state will be based on the 1967 lines and will include land swaps.

Thus, without really giving an inch, Abbas is being allowed to push the United States even farther away from Israel’s position of talks without preconditions. Like President Obama’s unfortunate squabble with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the 1967 lines in May 2011, the only thing this U.S. move will do is to further isolate Israel without bringing the region closer to peace.

In addition, the Palestinians benefit from the scrutiny the world press devotes to every possible gesture and action from the Israeli government that are consistently interpreted as somehow impacting Abbas’s decisions even though this isn’t remotely the case. Take for example the fuss the New York Times made today about a visit by Netanyahu to a Jewish town in the West Bank. The place, which even the Times conceded is “a 25-year-old community with 500 families,” is located in a settlement bloc near the old green line border that would be included within Israel even if there were a peace deal via the “land swaps” that everyone talks about.

Yet the Times still tried to portray any visit there by Netanyahu as somehow the moral equivalent of the supposed insult suffered by Vice President Biden when Israel announced a housing project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem during his visit. The administration picked a pointless fight with Israel at the time that accomplished nothing but allowing the Palestinians to think the United States was abandoning its ally. Abbas would like the same thing to happen now, but there’s a good chance that even if Kerry is foolish enough to play into the Palestinians’ hands, President Obama realizes any attempt to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction will not entice them to talk peace.

But having encouraged the Palestinians to think they will pressure Israel and force it to make unilateral concessions, Kerry needs to remember that the law of unintended consequences is always at play in the Middle East. Maneuvering Abbas into talks that are bound to lead to nothing could strengthen Hamas at Fatah’s expense. If so, all of Kerry’s well-intentioned diplomacy could actually make a hopeless situation even worse.


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