After the visits to Washington by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas this month, it’s clear that Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks are at an impasse. If one were only listening to the statements coming from President Obama and Kerry, you’d think the obstacle to continued talks was their perennial whipping boy Netanyahu and not Abbas, whom they went out of their way to praise for his supposed commitment to peace. Yet while the Israelis have been prepared to accept Kerry’s framework for continued talks, albeit with misgivings about the direction of the process, it is the Palestinians who are digging in their heels and won’t commit to the framework or to keep talking after April. Demonstrating just how strong he thinks his hand is with the Americans, Abbas delivered three significant “no’s” to Obama last week that call into question both the Palestinians’ intentions as well as the future of the current process:
Abbas “went to the White House and said ‘no’ to Obama,” [Israel’s] Channel 2 news reported, quoting unnamed American and Israeli sources. Specifically, the report said, Abbas rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also refused to abandon the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and their descendants — a demand that, if implemented, would drastically alter Israel’s demographic balance and which no conceivable Israeli government would accept. And finally, he refused to commit to an “end of conflict,” under which a peace deal would represent the termination of any further Palestinian demands of Israel.
It must be understood that a framework without these three elements is a formula for continued conflict, not peace. Moreover, according to a report in the Arab press, Abbas had some demands of his own before he would agree to keep talking even with a framework that did not include the three points he has rejected. He wants Israel to release the last of the more than 100 terrorist murderers it agreed to free in exchange for his agreement to return to the table last year plus one more: Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who is currently serving five life-in-prison sentences for five murders.
As the Times of Israel notes, the release of Barghouti, who led the terrorist Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade during the second intifada (and was therefore actually responsible for the deaths of hundreds and injury to thousands more Israelis and Palestinians than the mere five civilian deaths for which he was convicted), would be a coup for Abbas and might give him the kind of political breathing room to keep talking. If he were sprung, Barghouti would also be seen as Abbas’s successor since the spilling of so much Jewish blood has enhanced his political stock among Palestinians. If, as is likely, the Israelis refuse, that would allow Abbas to once again blame Netanyahu for obstructing the peace process.
The Barghouti demand may be just window dressing intended to strengthen the always shaky political standing of Abbas as he serves the ninth year of the four-year term as president of the PA to which he was elected in 2005. But the key to understanding his negotiating strategy is his apparent confidence that nothing he does or says will cause the United States to call him out for his intransigence and blatant insincerity.
Indeed, though Kerry attempted to create a framework that was more or less on the terms that the Palestinians have always demanded–an independent state whose borders would be based on the 1967 lines that would include a share of Jerusalem–they have refused to assent to it since it would obligate them to actually end the conflict and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. Obama’s decision to publicly hammer Netanyahu while praising Abbas seems to have emboldened the Palestinian to think he has carte blanche to up the ante on the Israelis while giving nothing in return. That Kerry and Obama cheerleaders like the left-wing J Street group have endorsed Abbas’s refusal to say those two little words—Jewish state—that would indicate his willingness to envision actual peace only reinforces his reluctance to give an inch.
Israelis are now expected to release the last of the murderers Abbas demanded as a ransom for his presence at the table just as he is abandoning it with the extra insult that the names of the terrorists on the list are actually Israeli citizens rather than residents of the territories. The bottom line is that after issuing three historic “no’s” to Israeli peace offers including statehood in 2000, 2001, and 2008, Abbas has now added three more refusals that add up to yet another instance in which the Palestinians have rejected a compromise that would end the conflict. How many more “no’s” will convince the administration that Abbas hasn’t the courage to challenge the Palestinian political culture of intransigence that he helped create and therefore must be held responsible for the deadlock rather than Netanyahu? Right now, Abbas is betting the number is infinite.