Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abbas’s Retreat

A Lesson for the Future in Abbas’s Retreat on Refusing to Talk

That Israel and the Palestinians, after 16 years of direct talks, are now back to indirect talks is an undeniable retreat. But in a must-read analysis, the Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, points out that this may nevertheless be one of the most hopeful moments of the entire peace process — because for the first time, “the Palestinians gave in on something.”

“Israelis, Palestinians and the world have become accustomed to Israel setting red lines, and then moving them,” Keinon wrote. “The Palestinians, on the other hand, have set a track record of saying what they mean.” For instance, they have never budged from their demand for “all of east Jerusalem, including the Old City,” or for “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper.”

But after months of proclaiming that he would not resume talks with Israel without a complete freeze on Israeli construction in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has backed down. And this offers a crucial lesson for the future.

“The reason Abbas was willing to move his red line was because he came under intense pressure from the US, certain elements inside the EU, and from Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan to start talks, even though all his conditions were not met,” Keinon noted. “The valuable lesson here: The Palestinians, too, and not only Israel, are susceptible to pressure.”

In the rest of the article, Keinon focuses on the short term — primarily, whether the U.S., EU, Egypt, and Jordan will learn this lesson well enough to pressure Abbas to continue talks after his self-imposed four-month deadline expires.

But the truly significant implications are for the long term. Until now, the U.S., EU, and Arab states have devoted all their efforts to pressuring Israel to change its positions — with great success. Israel’s “red lines” on borders and Jerusalem, for instance, have steadily retreated, to the point where former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank, large chunks of East Jerusalem, international Muslim control over the Temple Mount, and even a symbolic absorption of Palestinian refugees. Yet there are limits beyond which no Israeli government will ever go.

Thus, no agreement will ever be possible unless the Palestinians, too, change some of their positions – which, as Keinon noted, has yet to happen. And it never will happen without concerted pressure from the U.S., EU, and Arab world.

If these countries learn the lesson and in fact begin pressuring Abbas to start educating his people about what an agreement will really entail, Barack Obama might someday justly claim credit for having fomented the turnabout that ultimately led to an agreement. But if they instead fall back into the old familiar pattern of endlessly pressuring Israel for more concessions, the current round of talks will be just one more link in an unbroken chain of peace-process failures.

That Israel and the Palestinians, after 16 years of direct talks, are now back to indirect talks is an undeniable retreat. But in a must-read analysis, the Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, points out that this may nevertheless be one of the most hopeful moments of the entire peace process — because for the first time, “the Palestinians gave in on something.”

“Israelis, Palestinians and the world have become accustomed to Israel setting red lines, and then moving them,” Keinon wrote. “The Palestinians, on the other hand, have set a track record of saying what they mean.” For instance, they have never budged from their demand for “all of east Jerusalem, including the Old City,” or for “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper.”

But after months of proclaiming that he would not resume talks with Israel without a complete freeze on Israeli construction in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has backed down. And this offers a crucial lesson for the future.

“The reason Abbas was willing to move his red line was because he came under intense pressure from the US, certain elements inside the EU, and from Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan to start talks, even though all his conditions were not met,” Keinon noted. “The valuable lesson here: The Palestinians, too, and not only Israel, are susceptible to pressure.”

In the rest of the article, Keinon focuses on the short term — primarily, whether the U.S., EU, Egypt, and Jordan will learn this lesson well enough to pressure Abbas to continue talks after his self-imposed four-month deadline expires.

But the truly significant implications are for the long term. Until now, the U.S., EU, and Arab states have devoted all their efforts to pressuring Israel to change its positions — with great success. Israel’s “red lines” on borders and Jerusalem, for instance, have steadily retreated, to the point where former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank, large chunks of East Jerusalem, international Muslim control over the Temple Mount, and even a symbolic absorption of Palestinian refugees. Yet there are limits beyond which no Israeli government will ever go.

Thus, no agreement will ever be possible unless the Palestinians, too, change some of their positions – which, as Keinon noted, has yet to happen. And it never will happen without concerted pressure from the U.S., EU, and Arab world.

If these countries learn the lesson and in fact begin pressuring Abbas to start educating his people about what an agreement will really entail, Barack Obama might someday justly claim credit for having fomented the turnabout that ultimately led to an agreement. But if they instead fall back into the old familiar pattern of endlessly pressuring Israel for more concessions, the current round of talks will be just one more link in an unbroken chain of peace-process failures.

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