Yesterday’s meeting between President Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas brought no surprises. In contrast to the frosty reception that greeted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks ago, Abbas basked in Obama’s praise. In his public remarks the president also chose to emphasize those elements of the U.S.-sponsored framework for Middle East peace that conform to some of the Palestinians’ demands, such as a state along the 1967 borders with mutually agreed territorial swaps. But though the president also said that the Palestinians needed to take risks for peace, there was none of the heavy-handed pressure or criticism of Abbas that Netanyahu received. Nor was there even a mention of the need for Abbas to say the two little words that would guarantee a surge of Israeli support for concessions to the Palestinians: “Jewish state.”
Abbas didn’t miss the significance of that omission, which was foreshadowed by Secretary of State Kerry’s complaint last week about the necessity of making the Palestinians make a statement signaling the end of their war to destroy Israel. As the New York Times noted in a story published today, the president seems to be at pains to “right the balance” in the negotiations. Apparently, the White House has come to the conclusion that Secretary Kerry’s efforts to revive the peace process have been too focused on measures intended to convince Israelis that the Palestinians are finally ready for peace or guarantee their security in the event a deal is struck. The president appears to think it’s time to shift back to the combative tone he struck toward Israel during most of his first term prior to his election-year Jewish charm offensive. Even though the Israelis have shown that they will accept Kerry’s framework that reportedly includes a Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Obama’s intention seems to be aimed at placing the onus for the potential failure of the talks squarely on the Israelis.
That’s good news for Abbas who has made it clear he has no intention of agreeing to the framework. But it begs the question of whether Obama is more interested in venting his spleen at Netanyahu or brokering peace.
Israelis will, no doubt, be surprised to learn that the administration thinks it has spent the last few months tilting the diplomatic playing field in their direction. After all, it was the Jewish state that paid a high price in terms of U.S. pressure that demanded the release of more than 100 terrorist murderers in order to persuade Abbas to come back to the negotiating table. And it was Israel that was the prime focus of pressure from Kerry throughout the first months of the talks as the secretary threatened it with a new intifada and growing economic boycotts if they failed to make sufficient concessions to the Palestinians in statements that appeared to justify such acts.
Kerry included in his framework the Jewish state demand as well as more concrete measures aimed at ensuring that the new Palestinian state would not pose a security threat to Israel. In doing so Kerry was rightly seeking an agreement that would actually bring a conclusion to the conflict rather than a pause before the Palestinians resumed it on more advantageous terms. But that was apparently too much for both the Palestinians and their friend in the White House. Thus, rather than using this visit by Abbas to pressure him to say those two little words and to recognize that peace must be final, the president appears to have employed it as a signal to Israel to back off lest it be blamed for the collapse of the talks.
The president is being assisted in this gambit by a liberal mainstream news media that knows how to pick up on administration cues. The headline on the Times article, “Jewish State Declaration is Unyielding Block to a Deal,” made it clear that Washington wants to leave no doubt that even though it is Abbas that is the one who is saying “no” to a peace framework, they blame the Jews for asking him to do something unreasonable.
Abbas’s refusal to take the steps necessary to make peace is nothing new when you consider that he and his predecessor Yasir Arafat have already turned down three Israeli offers of peace and statehood. This has been a consistent pattern for the PA. As the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl noted on Sunday, Abbas thinks he can get away with this because the Obama administration has no intention of pressuring him or holding him accountable for Palestinian incitement, terror connections, or diplomatic intransigence.
If the president were genuinely interested in pursuing peace he would be hammering the Palestinians for their behavior and making it clear they would pay a high price for saying no to Kerry’s framework. Instead, he has given Abbas carte blanche to maintain the same obdurate stance he has taken since he took over the PA from his longtime boss Arafat.
What will this accomplish? It won’t advance the cause of peace. But it will make it easier for Israel’s critics to blame Netanyahu for the inevitable collapse of Kerry’s effort and serve to rationalize the violence and the boycotts the secretary threatened the Jewish state with. All Obama is doing is setting up Israel to take the fall for a fourth Palestinian “no” to peace.