Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mahmoud Abbas

Why Netanyahu Won’t “Go Big”

It turns out the Middle East peace process isn’t quite dead yet. According to the State Department, the “gaps are narrowing” in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that are still taking place despite the fact that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas formally scuttled the negotiations last week by restarting his futile efforts to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood via the United Nations. Combined with a statement made by Abbas to an Arabic newspaper that he would be willing to keep talking after the expiration of the April deadline provided they were conducted according to his dictates, Secretary of State John Kerry’s brave talk about his initiative still having a chance of success looks a little less silly today.

Nevertheless, given that the Palestinians haven’t really budged an inch on any substantive issue since the talks re-started last year and that Kerry blamed Israel for what happened last week in a statement as bizarre (“poof”) as it was mendacious, it’s hard to see why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be inclined to play along with this farce any longer. Having already demonstrated that they are only interested in forcing Israel to pay for their presence at the table with concessions like the release of terrorist murderers or building freezes in the West Bank or even Jerusalem, it’s clear that Israel has little to gain from more such negotiations. But if the Palestinians do keep talking after April, there’s no doubt that the Israelis will be there too, even if it means bribing Abbas by freeing more murderers. The reason for this will not be because Netanyahu is weak or that the process has an actual chance of success. It will be due to the fact that the prime minister understands that Israel must never walk away from negotiations no matter how futile they are. Moreover, the futility of these efforts is precisely why he knows that his government must not, despite Kerry’s smears, be the one that breaks up the party.

Some Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon break under American pressure and embrace territorial withdrawals while perhaps not even getting a symbolic promise that this means the end of the conflict from Abbas. They’re not the only ones. Faithful Obama administration cheerleader Jeffrey Goldberg writes today in his latest column that the only reason Kerry is persisting in his efforts is because he thinks Netanyahu will do just that and, like Ariel Sharon before him, blow up his Likud Party and transform Israeli politics to get peace. But the problem with this scenario is the one point that even Goldberg concedes is the weak point in Kerry’s efforts: Abbas. The Palestinian has no intention of signing a peace deal under any circumstances.

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It turns out the Middle East peace process isn’t quite dead yet. According to the State Department, the “gaps are narrowing” in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that are still taking place despite the fact that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas formally scuttled the negotiations last week by restarting his futile efforts to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood via the United Nations. Combined with a statement made by Abbas to an Arabic newspaper that he would be willing to keep talking after the expiration of the April deadline provided they were conducted according to his dictates, Secretary of State John Kerry’s brave talk about his initiative still having a chance of success looks a little less silly today.

Nevertheless, given that the Palestinians haven’t really budged an inch on any substantive issue since the talks re-started last year and that Kerry blamed Israel for what happened last week in a statement as bizarre (“poof”) as it was mendacious, it’s hard to see why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be inclined to play along with this farce any longer. Having already demonstrated that they are only interested in forcing Israel to pay for their presence at the table with concessions like the release of terrorist murderers or building freezes in the West Bank or even Jerusalem, it’s clear that Israel has little to gain from more such negotiations. But if the Palestinians do keep talking after April, there’s no doubt that the Israelis will be there too, even if it means bribing Abbas by freeing more murderers. The reason for this will not be because Netanyahu is weak or that the process has an actual chance of success. It will be due to the fact that the prime minister understands that Israel must never walk away from negotiations no matter how futile they are. Moreover, the futility of these efforts is precisely why he knows that his government must not, despite Kerry’s smears, be the one that breaks up the party.

Some Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon break under American pressure and embrace territorial withdrawals while perhaps not even getting a symbolic promise that this means the end of the conflict from Abbas. They’re not the only ones. Faithful Obama administration cheerleader Jeffrey Goldberg writes today in his latest column that the only reason Kerry is persisting in his efforts is because he thinks Netanyahu will do just that and, like Ariel Sharon before him, blow up his Likud Party and transform Israeli politics to get peace. But the problem with this scenario is the one point that even Goldberg concedes is the weak point in Kerry’s efforts: Abbas. The Palestinian has no intention of signing a peace deal under any circumstances.

If Netanyahu is, despite everything, going to keep showing up every time the Americans beckon, it isn’t because he is now suddenly willing to “go big” and make peace happen. Though his offer was not quite as generous (or should we say foolhardy) as the ones authored by his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, he has still put a two-state solution offering Abbas almost all of the West Bank for an independent state. But the notion that peace depends on the person whom Goldberg derides as “this man of inaction” to “risk his political career for a final deal” is laughable. Indeed, by writing these words, Goldberg has more or less forfeited his status as an expert on the Middle East in favor of the title of faithful court stenographer to Kerry.

Before these talks started, wiser heads than Kerry warned the secretary that with the Palestinians divided between the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza, Abbas was in no position to make peace. Everything that has happened since then has only confirmed that obvious fact as Abbas has stonewalled during the talks and seized on the first available pretext to flee them.

No prisoner release or settlement freeze will entice Abbas to say the two little words—“Jewish state”—that would indicate he was willing to end rather than pause the conflict with Israel. Nor is there anything that Netanyahu can conceivably do or say that would cause this aging, petty tyrant to risk his life merely to create a Palestinian state. Even nailing himself to the cross of settlement destruction—to use the inapt metaphor that Goldberg says is preferred by Vice President Biden—won’t get Abbas to make peace, and Netanyahu knows it. Though President Obama and Kerry laud Abbas as a man of peace, his unwillingness to speak of an end of the conflict indicates that he is no more willing to compromise and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn than Arafat was.

That leaves Netanyahu with the unpleasant task of managing a conflict that can’t be solved by peace or war. That means showing up for peace talks but having no illusions about it being a fool’s errand. In doing so he may appear to Kerry and his friend Goldberg as a mere “mayor of Israel.” Netanyahu may be a prickly customer who inspires animus in most of his American interlocutors, but he is not stupid. Destroying the Likud to impress Kerry may sound like vision to Goldberg but Netanyahu remembers what happened when Ariel Sharon tried the same thing less than a decade ago before his Gaza withdrawal fiasco. The prime minister has no intention of sacrificing himself just to give Abbas one more chance to prove he can’t or won’t make peace. Anyone, in Israel or the United States, who thinks he will is underestimating both his intelligence and his political acumen.

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Israel Has Few Options With Palestinians

The Palestinian Authority has thumbed its nose at both Israel and the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. By making it clear that it won’t back a U.S. framework for continued negotiations or to agree to any of the mainly symbolic measures that would indicate they are willing to end the conflict with Israel, it’s clear PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seized on the first flimsy pretext for walking out on the talks that came along. The fact that he has been rewarded for this intransigence with a mendacious statement from Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that turned the truth on its head and placed the blame for the collapse of his initiative on Israel will only make it even less likely that Abbas will be more amenable in the future. That leaves both the U.S. and the parties with the dilemma of what to do next.

Abbas is happily returning to the Palestinians’ pointless campaign for more recognition from the United Nations and its constituent organizations. That won’t do a thing for the Palestinian people either in terms of their desire for independence or their crying need for a better government both in the Fatah-run West Bank and in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Kerry is pondering how to find an excuse for a continuation of his fool’s errand in the Middle East.  Common sense as well as the interests of the Obama administration would indicate that putting the entire enterprise on hold is both the better part of valor and an opportunity to devote his department to more important foreign policy problems.

But it is Israel that is in the most delicate position of the three parts to this love/hate triangle. They would like to put pressure on the Palestinians to get back to the table and to do something to make it clear to Kerry that he won’t get away with scapegoating the Jewish state. But options for doing either of those things are neither palatable nor in the country’s best interests.

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The Palestinian Authority has thumbed its nose at both Israel and the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. By making it clear that it won’t back a U.S. framework for continued negotiations or to agree to any of the mainly symbolic measures that would indicate they are willing to end the conflict with Israel, it’s clear PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seized on the first flimsy pretext for walking out on the talks that came along. The fact that he has been rewarded for this intransigence with a mendacious statement from Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that turned the truth on its head and placed the blame for the collapse of his initiative on Israel will only make it even less likely that Abbas will be more amenable in the future. That leaves both the U.S. and the parties with the dilemma of what to do next.

Abbas is happily returning to the Palestinians’ pointless campaign for more recognition from the United Nations and its constituent organizations. That won’t do a thing for the Palestinian people either in terms of their desire for independence or their crying need for a better government both in the Fatah-run West Bank and in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Kerry is pondering how to find an excuse for a continuation of his fool’s errand in the Middle East.  Common sense as well as the interests of the Obama administration would indicate that putting the entire enterprise on hold is both the better part of valor and an opportunity to devote his department to more important foreign policy problems.

But it is Israel that is in the most delicate position of the three parts to this love/hate triangle. They would like to put pressure on the Palestinians to get back to the table and to do something to make it clear to Kerry that he won’t get away with scapegoating the Jewish state. But options for doing either of those things are neither palatable nor in the country’s best interests.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government are rightly outraged by Kerry’s offhand swipe at them yesterday when he claimed that the announcement of a housing project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem was the reason the talks collapsed. Not only did that have nothing to do with the Palestinian decision to bug out of the process, it was also false to claim that Israel had ever promised not to build in its capital, let alone in established areas that no one questions would stay in the Jewish state even in the event of a peace treaty. But there is little the Israelis can do to make their displeasure with the Americans felt that would not harm an alliance that is essential to its security. While Netanyahu has proved in the past that attacks on his policy of defending the unity of the capital only serve to strengthen him, venting anger at Kerry won’t accomplish anything. As with past insults delivered by President Obama, Netanyahu knows all too well that keeping his powder dry is the best, indeed, only option.

But Israel does have substantial leverage over the Palestinians. The PA depends on Israel for all sorts of revenue as well as on cooperation to keep their ramshackle government and the shoddy services it provides its people from collapse. Even more important, cooperation between the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus does more than deter terrorism against the Jewish state. It also ensures the personal survival of Abbas and his Fatah faction against potential trouble from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If Israel really pulled the plug on the PA — rather than just taking symbolic steps such as Netanyahu’s order to end meetings between Israeli officials and their Palestinian counterparts, the Fatah apparatus would collapse.

While that sounds good to Israelis who dream of formal annexation of the West Bank in a one state solution that would exclude any Palestinian self-government, that is the last thing Netanyahu wants. The PA foments terrorism and incites hatred of Jews and Israel in its official media. People who have made it clear they won’t make peace with Israel under virtually any circumstances — as Abbas proved in 2008 when he fled talks with Ehud Olmert rather than accept independence — run it. But at this point it is also a necessary evil that Netanyahu understands that he must tolerate.

Without the PA, the task of maintaining Israel’s security would be even tougher. Nor is anyone in Jerusalem seriously interested in returning to the pre-Oslo status quo where the Israelis directly administered the West Bank. Netanyahu can make his displeasure with the PA felt for its UN gambit. But there are limits to how far he can go in punishing them that have nothing to do with American pressure.

Netanyahu would be foolish to go on releasing terrorist murderers to bribe Abbas to come back to the negotiations. Nor should he be asked to make any other unilateral concessions merely for the sake of talks that Abbas does not wish to advance no matter what he was offered. But this is perhaps the moment for him to return to a theme he has sounded in the past about helping make the West Bank more livable via economic development. Now that he has rid himself of the reform-minded Salam Fayyad as his prime minister, Abbas no longer has to pretend he cares much about good government. But it is on this point that he is most vulnerable. Managing the conflict rather than solving it remains the only short-term solution to either side. If Kerry wanted to do something constructive rather than promote a process that is fueled more by his ego than any reasonable prospects of success, that’s what he’d be emphasizing. But in the absence of such a change of heart, Israel has little choice but to sit tight and await the next move by both Kerry and Abbas.

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Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Today in testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry performed a post-mortem on the recent collapse of the Middle East peace talks. According to Kerry, the Palestinian refusal to keep negotiating past April and their decision to flout their treaty commitments by returning to efforts to gain recognition for their non-existent state from the United Nations was all the fault of one decision made by Israel. As the New York Times reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Israel’s announcement of 700 new apartments for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem precipitated the bitter impasse in peace negotiations last week between Israel and the Palestinians.

While Mr. Kerry said both sides bore responsibility for “unhelpful” actions, he noted that the publication of tenders for housing units came four days after a deadline passed for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and complicated Israel’s own deliberations over whether to extend the talks.

“Poof, that was the moment,” Mr. Kerry said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Poof? To say that this evaluation of the situation is disingenuous would be the understatement of the century. Kerry knows very well that the negotiations were doomed once the Palestinians refused to sign on to the framework for future talks he suggested even though it centered them on the 1967 lines that they demand as the basis for borders. Why? Because Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t say the two little words —“Jewish state”—that would make it clear he intended to end the conflict. Since the talks began last year after Abbas insisted on the release of terrorist murderers in order to get them back to the table, the Palestinians haven’t budged an inch on a single issue.

Thus, to blame the collapse on the decision to build apartments in Gilo—a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that would not change hands even in the event a peace treaty were ever signed and where Israel has never promised to stop building—is, to put it mildly, a mendacious effort to shift blame away from the side that seized the first pretext to flee talks onto the one that has made concessions in order to get the Palestinians to sit at the table. But why would Kerry utter such a blatant falsehood about the process he has championed?

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Today in testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry performed a post-mortem on the recent collapse of the Middle East peace talks. According to Kerry, the Palestinian refusal to keep negotiating past April and their decision to flout their treaty commitments by returning to efforts to gain recognition for their non-existent state from the United Nations was all the fault of one decision made by Israel. As the New York Times reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Israel’s announcement of 700 new apartments for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem precipitated the bitter impasse in peace negotiations last week between Israel and the Palestinians.

While Mr. Kerry said both sides bore responsibility for “unhelpful” actions, he noted that the publication of tenders for housing units came four days after a deadline passed for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and complicated Israel’s own deliberations over whether to extend the talks.

“Poof, that was the moment,” Mr. Kerry said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Poof? To say that this evaluation of the situation is disingenuous would be the understatement of the century. Kerry knows very well that the negotiations were doomed once the Palestinians refused to sign on to the framework for future talks he suggested even though it centered them on the 1967 lines that they demand as the basis for borders. Why? Because Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t say the two little words —“Jewish state”—that would make it clear he intended to end the conflict. Since the talks began last year after Abbas insisted on the release of terrorist murderers in order to get them back to the table, the Palestinians haven’t budged an inch on a single issue.

Thus, to blame the collapse on the decision to build apartments in Gilo—a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that would not change hands even in the event a peace treaty were ever signed and where Israel has never promised to stop building—is, to put it mildly, a mendacious effort to shift blame away from the side that seized the first pretext to flee talks onto the one that has made concessions in order to get the Palestinians to sit at the table. But why would Kerry utter such a blatant falsehood about the process he has championed?

The answer is simple. Kerry doesn’t want to blame the Palestinians for walking out because to do so would be a tacit admission that his critics were right when they suggested last year that he was embarking on a fool’s errand. The division between the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza has created a dynamic which makes it almost impossible for Abbas to negotiate a deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn even if he wanted to.

Since Kerry hopes to entice the Palestinians back to the talks at some point, blaming Israel also gives him leverage to demand more concessions from the Jewish state to bribe Abbas to negotiate. Being honest about the Palestinian stance would not only undermine the basis for the talks but also make it harder to justify the administration’s continued insistence on pressuring the Israelis rather than seek to force Abbas to alter his intransigent positions.

Seen in that light, Kerry probably thinks no harm can come from blaming the Israelis who have always been the convenient whipping boys of the peace process no matter what the circumstances. But he’s wrong about that too. Just as the Clinton administration did inestimable damage to the credibility of the peace process and set the stage for another round of violence by whitewashing Yasir Arafat’s support for terrorism and incitement to hatred in the 1990s, so, too, do Kerry’s efforts to portray Abbas as the victim rather than the author of this fiasco undermine his efforts for peace.

So long as the Palestinians pay no price for their refusal to give up unrealistic demands for a Jewish retreat from Jerusalem as well as the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants and a refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and end the conflict, peace is impossible no matter what the Netanyahu government does. Appeasing them with lies about Israel, like the efforts of some to absolve Arafat and Abbas for saying no to peace in 2000, 2001, and 2008, only makes it easier for the PA to go on saying no. Whether they are doing so in the hope of extorting more concessions from Israel or because, as is more likely, they have no intention of making peace on any terms, the result is the same.

Telling the truth about the Palestinians might make Kerry look foolish for devoting so much time and effort to a process that never had a chance. But it might lay the groundwork for future success in the event that the sea change in Palestinian opinion that might make peace possible were to occur. Falsely blaming Israel won’t bring that moment any closer. 

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What Peace Looks Like … And Requires

One of the oft-repeated clichés of the Middle East is that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is just a matter of determination on the part of both sides, and intermediaries like the United States, to keep pushing compromise until a treaty is signed. As proof of the ability of common sense and persistence to solve even the most intractable conflicts, we are always told to look to Ireland where, after a centuries-long dispute, the long “troubles” over British attempts to hold onto that country were ended by first a partition of the island and then decades later by a Good Friday agreement brokered by the United States. Today, the success of that peace process was on display when the Irish republic’s president came to London on a state visit where Queen Elizabeth treated him as an equal.

Taken in a historical context, this is an inspiring moment that would have seemed impossible a century ago. Indeed, it was not thought likely even a generation ago as Northern Ireland was racked by riots and sectarian conflict over its future. The violence in Ulster seems to be a thing of the past and even if it is not impossible for that powder keg to be reignited at some point, the transformation of the relationship between the two countries and peoples is not to be underestimated. As the New York Times notes today, the main points of contention between Dublin and London these days are worries in Ireland that Britain may leave the European Union, something that would complicate the extensive ties between the two nations.

But those who cite this as a reason for optimism about the Middle East are doing a grave disservice to the parties there, especially the Palestinians. If Ireland has achieved peace it is because the leaders of the Irish nation made hard choices that the Palestinians have, to this day, never been able or willing to do. Why that is so is a short history lesson that those who persist in placing blame for the lack of peace on Israel need to learn. 

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One of the oft-repeated clichés of the Middle East is that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is just a matter of determination on the part of both sides, and intermediaries like the United States, to keep pushing compromise until a treaty is signed. As proof of the ability of common sense and persistence to solve even the most intractable conflicts, we are always told to look to Ireland where, after a centuries-long dispute, the long “troubles” over British attempts to hold onto that country were ended by first a partition of the island and then decades later by a Good Friday agreement brokered by the United States. Today, the success of that peace process was on display when the Irish republic’s president came to London on a state visit where Queen Elizabeth treated him as an equal.

Taken in a historical context, this is an inspiring moment that would have seemed impossible a century ago. Indeed, it was not thought likely even a generation ago as Northern Ireland was racked by riots and sectarian conflict over its future. The violence in Ulster seems to be a thing of the past and even if it is not impossible for that powder keg to be reignited at some point, the transformation of the relationship between the two countries and peoples is not to be underestimated. As the New York Times notes today, the main points of contention between Dublin and London these days are worries in Ireland that Britain may leave the European Union, something that would complicate the extensive ties between the two nations.

But those who cite this as a reason for optimism about the Middle East are doing a grave disservice to the parties there, especially the Palestinians. If Ireland has achieved peace it is because the leaders of the Irish nation made hard choices that the Palestinians have, to this day, never been able or willing to do. Why that is so is a short history lesson that those who persist in placing blame for the lack of peace on Israel need to learn. 

Apologists for the Palestinians claim that they have chosen peace with Israel via the Oslo Accords as well as the subsequent negotiations in which they have engaged. But in point of fact, first Yasir Arafat and now Mahmoud Abbas have steadfastly refused to accept the half a loaf of independence and freedom that a peace agreement would entail. They’ve refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or agree to its legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. Most of all, they have refused to face down their domestic opponents, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They have instead competed with them for the title of the most anti-Israel.

Had the leaders of Ireland’s early 20th century revolt against British rule done the same, today’s state visit would be unthinkable. What happened in 1922 was that the a majority of the Irish Republican party led by underground hero Michael Collins embraced a compromise peace agreement with Britain that fell far short of their dreams of a united Irish republic. They swallowed hard and accepted a partition that left six of the country’s 26 counties under British rule including a couple in which the country’s Protestant minority was not in the majority. More than that, the democratically elected Irish government (something that can no longer said to be true of Abbas who is currently serving in the ninth year of a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority) put the question of war and peace in the hands of their people. A majority backed the peace treaty and when the IRA, under Eamon de Valera, did not accept the outcome of the ballot box, a bloody civil war resumed in which the pro-peace faction backed by the British prevailed.

Neither Arafat nor Abbas has ever shown any sign of being to act as Collins did in realizing that a truncated Palestinian state was better than none at all. Neither were they prepared to risk their lives as he did (he was assassinated during the Irish Civil War); nor have they, perhaps for good reason, trusted the Palestinian people to back the cause of peace against those preaching war to the death against the Jews.

The reason for this is, of course, rooted in the very different natures of these two conflicts. It was difficult for many Britons to accept the loss of their first colony. But the reason why they were eventually able to reconcile themselves to the compromise of 1922 was that the purpose of the various Irish rebellions they had put down over the centuries was not the annihilation of the British state. The Irish wanted self-determination but they had no ambition to plant their flag over London or any part of England, Scotland, or Wales. But, though many observers continue to act as if the only point of the conflict in the Middle East is the dispute over the West Bank, Palestinians see all of Israel, and not just settlements over the old “green line,” as their patrimony. Irish nationalism was about the revival of Celtic culture and self-determination on their island. Palestinian nationalism was created as a reaction to Zionism and unfortunately has never outgrown the obsession with seeking to eradicate any Jewish state.

Peace between Palestinians and Israelis is not impossible, at least in theory. It would require Israelis to accept a Palestinian state, a position the overwhelming majority of them, including their supposedly right-wing government, have already accepted. But it also requires the Palestinians to do as the Irish did and give up their maximalist dreams and be willing to put down domestic opposition to peace, even if it means a civil war of their own. Until that happens, dreams of a Middle East version of Anglo-Irish reconciliation are not within the realm of the possible.

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Abbas Bets on Kerry’s Desperation

The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

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The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would take its own “unilateral steps” in response to the Palestinians’ move last week to join 15 international treaties and conventions and reiterated that a Palestinian state could be created “only through direct negotiations, not through empty statements and not by unilateral moves.”

The Palestinians said they took the contentious step only because Israel reneged on a promise to release a group of long-serving prisoners by the end of March, breaking its own commitment as part of the negotiations.

So that’s step one: the pretext. The Palestinians say they took their unilateral steps because Israel didn’t release all the murderers it was supposed to. Those unilateral steps consisted of pushing applications to join various international conventions. According to this logic, if Israel releases the rest of those terrorists, the talks should resume. Except:

Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official who resigned as a negotiator in the midst of the current talks, said on Monday that Mr. Abbas’s application to join the international entities was “irreversible” and represented a “paradigm shift” in which Palestinians would pursue other options in parallel with bilateral negotiations. But he, too, suggested that there could yet be a way out of the crisis.

“We are keeping the door open for any serious talks,” he said at a briefing in Ramallah. “We have time between today and the 29th of April. If the Israeli side is serious, we are ready for that.”

So there’s no going back. But there is a way to salvage the talks, according to the Palestinians. More concessions from Israel, with no concurrent Palestinian concessions, will bring them back to the table:

Mr. Shtayyeh rejected Israel’s demand that the applications to the entities be withdrawn and said Palestinians want to separate the issues of the release of the promised fourth batch of prisoners from that of extending the timetable for the talks. He said extending negotiations would require either a freeze on construction in West Bank settlements or the Israeli presentation of a map outlining the future borders of the promised two states.

So the two sides are to treat the negotiations as if they are beginning anew, not continuing the previous round of talks? Not exactly:

“The release of prisoners is part of an agreement, and no compromise can be accepted,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close aide to Mr. Abbas and an officer of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Sunday on the Voice of Palestine radio station.

Even if you are sympathetic to the Palestinian side in this argument, this is plainly transparent. If the Palestinians believe Israel must release the rest of the terrorists for talks to continue, then that should theoretically be the only requirement for Abbas to pretend to negotiate again. It would be appropriate for Abbas to then take back the unilateral action he claims he took in response to Israel’s action (or perceived inaction, as it were), since even he associates the two.

He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to exact a price for this delay. If you’re still with him so far, he gets the original prisoner release in order to return to negotiations plus a penalty of sorts against Israel for the delay by applying to join the international agencies and conventions. That should be it, right? Nope–Abbas wants another precondition, such as a settlement freeze, as though the process were starting from the beginning or Israel wouldn’t release the rest of the terrorists, when in fact he acts as though both were true.

What’s the argument in favor of a round of concessions as preconditions in addition to releasing the terrorists? Abbas is playing Kerry. He assumes that Kerry is sufficiently desperate for negotiations that he’ll lean on Netanyahu to give Abbas whatever he wants. In all likelihood, the Israeli Cabinet (except for Tzipi Livni) will get tired of this game, which suits Abbas just fine, since he doesn’t seem to want an actual peace deal but rather a disaster he can blame on the Israelis. The question is whether Kerry–or any representative of the Obama administration–can ever get tired of scapegoating Netanyahu.

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The Retrograde Israeli Left

Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

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Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

The reading of the failure of negotiations offered by Labor leader Isaac Herzog was hardly convincing. It essentially amounts to: Abbas is no picnic, but that’s beside the point because Netanyahu is infinitely worse. Apparently ignoring the fact that Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is now without any democratic mandate, not to mention the way in which he already rejected the remarkably generous offers of Olmert’s Kadima government in 2008, Herzog announced before the Knesset, “Abu Mazen is a tough and infuriating partner and sometimes very exasperating, and can even be depressing, (but) he is our partner and there is no point at all in wishing otherwise.” Yet of Netanyahu Herzog had this to say: “We are on the edge of a volcano and the public does not understand the severity of the situation, and all of the blame is on a prime minister who is incapable of doing anything. The entire process has collapsed because as far as Netanyahu is concerned there is no place for taking real steps for peace.”

What these “real steps” are remains unclear, but presumably the offer of another 400 security prisoners going free and a partial settlement freeze doesn’t really cut it for those in the business of taking “real steps for peace.” Of course to admit otherwise would be to concede that Abbas is anything but the partner that Herzog insists he is. It is certainly remarkable that Herzog could claim, with a straight face, that “all of the blame” lies with Netanyahu. This desperate need to excuse the Palestinians, no matter how ridiculous, was also the order of the day for Labor MK Eitan Cabel who, during the same debate, declared “I’m not defending the Palestinians, but it’s amazing how people act like they’re shocked that the Palestinians have demands. Isn’t that the meaning of negotiations?” The Palestinian demand that Israel agree to all the final outcomes of the negotiations before they even got underway may seem a little unreasonable to some, yet, if this line of saying “yes the Palestinians don’t act like they want peace but…” was ever convincing then it certainly ceased to be so quite some time ago.  

These were the same delusions being pushed by Meretz. MK Tamar Zandberg was particularly critical of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, rubbishing the government’s efforts and asserting, “If we needed a negotiating process for them to accept the destructive thesis that there is no partner only so that they could stay in a coalition that undermines it, then thanks but no thanks. If you can’t do it then let’s break up the coalition and choose someone who can do the work.” Meretz’s leader Zahava Gal-On similarly singled out the centrist party leaders for propping up this supposedly anti-peace coalition, claiming that “this government does not really want to reach an accord” and referred to Livni and Lapid as “fig leaves which grant legitimacy to pointless negotiations.”

In her suggestion that these negotiations have been pointless, many Israelis will agree with the Meretz leader, only for quite different reasons. They know that if Abbas was ever serious about these talks it was only ever as a means for extracting as many concessions from Israel as possible. There are also many Israelis who, contrary to the statements above, doubt that the Palestinians are capable of being partners for peace and as such, figures on the right are starting to float new proposals for unilateral ways out of this impasse. The left, stuck in the past, has nothing new to offer, just more of the same. 

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UN Bodies Double-Edged Sword for Palestinians

Speaking on Thursday night, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would rather “become a martyr” than withdraw the applications that the Palestinians have submitted to 15 international treaties and conventions, as Israel has insisted he must do. Not one to pass up the opportunity for melodrama, Abbas’s pronouncement will hardly cause any shockwaves, but if he continues with this reckless policy of joining international bodies then Abbas may well find himself hoisted by his own petard. While legal experts are divided about the practical ramifications of these latest moves, there are certain international organizations that, were the PA to join them, would likely render Abbas open prosecution himself.

The events surrounding this latest Palestinian action–that likely symbolize the final blow to the latest round of talks–have already been pored over in detail, and no doubt will continue to be contested and fought over a great deal more. The simple chronology is that on Tuesday, shortly before Abbas was to meet with Secretary Kerry and while Israel was awaiting a response from Abbas to its ludicrously generous offer to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners and partially freeze settlements in return for extending peace talks, Abbas had the PA submit requests to join 15 international conventions and treaties. This, it should be recalled, is despite the fact that the PA is obligated to refrain from such actions while talks continue through to the end of April, although strictly speaking the Oslo accords prohibit such actions in any event.

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Speaking on Thursday night, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would rather “become a martyr” than withdraw the applications that the Palestinians have submitted to 15 international treaties and conventions, as Israel has insisted he must do. Not one to pass up the opportunity for melodrama, Abbas’s pronouncement will hardly cause any shockwaves, but if he continues with this reckless policy of joining international bodies then Abbas may well find himself hoisted by his own petard. While legal experts are divided about the practical ramifications of these latest moves, there are certain international organizations that, were the PA to join them, would likely render Abbas open prosecution himself.

The events surrounding this latest Palestinian action–that likely symbolize the final blow to the latest round of talks–have already been pored over in detail, and no doubt will continue to be contested and fought over a great deal more. The simple chronology is that on Tuesday, shortly before Abbas was to meet with Secretary Kerry and while Israel was awaiting a response from Abbas to its ludicrously generous offer to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners and partially freeze settlements in return for extending peace talks, Abbas had the PA submit requests to join 15 international conventions and treaties. This, it should be recalled, is despite the fact that the PA is obligated to refrain from such actions while talks continue through to the end of April, although strictly speaking the Oslo accords prohibit such actions in any event.

It is unclear whether the Palestinians ever directly responded to the initial Israeli offer, but instead they issued a counter-set of demands for agreeing to continue with negotiations. That list of demands essentially amounts to an itinerary of all the things that one would presume would be covered during the talks themselves. In other words, Abbas is demanding that Israel flatly agree to meet all his requirements on borders, Jerusalem, security, etc., prior to talks being resumed, at which point there would of course be nothing left to discuss. It hardly passes for what most would understand by the term “negotiation.” And if Israel doesn’t submit to all of this then apparently the Palestinians will plow ahead with their strategy of joining UN bodies.

There is, however, significant disagreement about just how damaging these moves could really be for Israel. So far it appears that in this latest round of applications the Palestinians have restricted their requests to joining treaties and conventions rather than actual UN organizations. Among the 15 they requested to join on Tuesday are the Fourth Geneva Conventions, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It has been suggested that the move toward joining the Hague Convention may be part of preparation to try and prosecute Israel over construction in Jewish communities over the 1949 armistice lines, which would include any building throughout most of Jerusalem. Other observers, such as professor Robbie Sabel of the Hebrew University, have claimed that since Israel is already bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention, it will not make any difference whether the Palestinian Authority were also to become a member.   

Predictably, Amnesty International has welcomed these moves and condemned Israel for the threats that Cabinet ministers have made about sanctioning the Palestinian Authority for its breach of its obligations. Indeed, Amnesty International is even urging the Palestinians to go further, encouraging the PA to also submit requests to join both the International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute. Yet there is good reason why the Palestinians have not already attempted this. While the statement by Amnesty International was naturally gleeful about the prospect of opening the way to bringing charges against Israel for its presence and activities in the West Bank, the statement further noted that such a move would also allow for holding the Palestinian Authority to account for its “alleged” violations. Of course, one can’t help but come away from Amnesty’s statement with the impression that Israel’s “abuses” are presumed genuine; the Palestinian Authority’s are merely “alleged,” with the statement referring to how this move would “spur the Palestinian Authority into bolstering its commitment to upholding the rights of all people.” Well, that’s certainly one commitment that if ever made, could surely do with some bolstering.

The PA’s human-rights violations against other Palestinians may not be well publicized but they are no secret either. Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has even spoken of pursuing the PA at the ICC for its sponsorship of terrorism. That is certainly a reminder that in the event that the Palestinians were ever to join these more significant bodies, we need not assume that attempts at prosecution would be all in one direction. And it is for that very reason that Abbas will no doubt be far more cautious about applying to join the international organizations that actually carry the most significant clout. In the meantime the diplomatic war of words, threats, and counter-threats goes on. We are pretty much back to where we were before Kerry’s embarrassingly ill-conceived process began: negotiating about negotiating. 

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The Peace Process Blame Game

It was to be expected that the Obama administration would seek to cast blame yesterday for the apparent collapse of the Middle East peace process championed by Secretary of State John Kerry on both Israel and the Palestinians. White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the president was disappointed with the “unhelpful, unilateral actions both parties have taken in recent days.” He added that “tit for tat” actions were counterproductive but that despite ominous signs, the U.S. administration still believed diplomacy had a chance.

Like the talk about a “cycle of violence” every time a terrorist attack on an Israeli target provokes a response, the decision by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to torpedo Kerry’s proposal to keep the talks going beyond April is being interpreted as being as much Israel’s fault as that of the Palestinians. Kerry, who is not giving up so easily, issued his own statement challenging both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to lead their peoples to peace. Though he has taken on the task of trying to cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace as a personal crusade, in his comments after Abbas’s actions, Kerry returned to the familiar theme that the U.S. couldn’t want peace more than two parties to the conflict.

But while even-handedly casting blame for the apparent failure of Kerry’s initiative enables the U.S. to continue to try to cajole the Palestinians to keep talking, this effort speaks volumes about the inherent problems in the process. It may be true that, as Kerry claimed, “The fight right now, the disagreement between them, is not over the fundamental substance of a final status agreement. It is over the process that would get you there and what you need to do in order to be able to continue to negotiate.” But the unwillingness of the Palestinians to get from point A to point B in order to achieve statehood tells us much more about the daunting nature of the task Kerry has assumed than the “tit for tat” narrative being circulated by the Americans.

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It was to be expected that the Obama administration would seek to cast blame yesterday for the apparent collapse of the Middle East peace process championed by Secretary of State John Kerry on both Israel and the Palestinians. White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the president was disappointed with the “unhelpful, unilateral actions both parties have taken in recent days.” He added that “tit for tat” actions were counterproductive but that despite ominous signs, the U.S. administration still believed diplomacy had a chance.

Like the talk about a “cycle of violence” every time a terrorist attack on an Israeli target provokes a response, the decision by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to torpedo Kerry’s proposal to keep the talks going beyond April is being interpreted as being as much Israel’s fault as that of the Palestinians. Kerry, who is not giving up so easily, issued his own statement challenging both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to lead their peoples to peace. Though he has taken on the task of trying to cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace as a personal crusade, in his comments after Abbas’s actions, Kerry returned to the familiar theme that the U.S. couldn’t want peace more than two parties to the conflict.

But while even-handedly casting blame for the apparent failure of Kerry’s initiative enables the U.S. to continue to try to cajole the Palestinians to keep talking, this effort speaks volumes about the inherent problems in the process. It may be true that, as Kerry claimed, “The fight right now, the disagreement between them, is not over the fundamental substance of a final status agreement. It is over the process that would get you there and what you need to do in order to be able to continue to negotiate.” But the unwillingness of the Palestinians to get from point A to point B in order to achieve statehood tells us much more about the daunting nature of the task Kerry has assumed than the “tit for tat” narrative being circulated by the Americans.

As David Horovitz writes in the Times of Israel today, the crisis revolves around the doubts about Abbas’s willingness to make peace under any circumstances:

The Palestinians have a weak president who, while no duplicitous, terror-fostering Arafat, never confronted the narrative bequeathed by his unlamented predecessor, to the effect that the Jews have no sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world.

Every account of the talks that have been going on the past several months agrees that while the Israelis have put proposals on the table about statehood that, while not exactly what the Palestinians wanted, were at least measures that would give them statehood and independence. But the Palestinians haven’t budged an inch on their demands or on their refusal to make symbolic gestures that would make it clear they intended to end the conflict.

While the Israelis have indicated a willingness to keep talking, Abbas has seized upon the first available pretext to abandon the negotiations to resume his efforts to gain further recognition from the United Nations, even though that will do nothing for his people and does little harm to the Israelis.

But Netanyahu is being blamed for balking at releasing another batch of terrorist murderers (including many Israeli citizens) without some assurance that the Palestinians would keep negotiating. An announcement of a housing project in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo (a 40-plus-year-old “settlement”) was also seen as provocative even though both sides know that such an area would remain part of Israel in any peace agreement. Above all, Netanyahu is being castigated for having asked Abbas to acknowledge their acceptance of Israel being the nation state of the Jewish people just as the putative Palestinian state is that of the Palestinian Arabs.

But none of that gainsays the fact that Netanyahu’s government has indicated it will accept a Palestinian state and will compromise on territory in order to make it happen. In return, the Palestinians are still willing to do nothing to indicate that this would cause them to give up their century-long war on Zionism. If Netanyahu erred, it was in his initial decision to release more than 100 terrorist murderers (who were subsequently honored by Abbas) in the first place without gaining something from the Palestinians. Having been bribed by Kerry to come back to the table, Abbas thinks the whole point of the process is to give the Palestinians what they want without making them do anything in exchange for these concessions.

As Horovitz writes:

At the heart of the impasse, however, lies a fundamental asymmetry: Israeli Jews have come to believe that their own best interests, and specifically the imperative to retain a Jewish and democratic Israel, require an accommodation with the Palestinians. There is no comparable imperative on the Palestinian side — not, that is, so long as much of the international community persists in indicating to the Palestinians that they will be able to achieve full independence and sovereignty without the inconvenience of coming to terms with Israel.

It may be convenient to blame both sides. But there is little doubt that the process is failing for the same reason that it failed in 2000, 2001, and 2008 (when Abbas fled the table rather than be forced to answer Ehud Olmert’s offer of statehood). Neither the Palestinian leadership nor their people seem as interested in ending the conflict as the Israelis.

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Kerry’s Hubris Leads to a Great Fall

It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

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It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

In a rare example of agreement between the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both ridiculed Kerry’s use of Pollard as a pathetic Hail Mary pass to revive the peace negotiations that had been scuttled by Abbas. Though the two papers came at the issue from different perspectives—the Journal correctly thought it was wrong to trade a spy for the terrorist murderers Abbas wanted Israel to free while the Times thought that the gesture would advance the negotiations—they spoke for just about everybody inside and outside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment in declaring the Pollard gambit to be a sign of desperation on the part of the secretary.

The problem here isn’t just that including Pollard in the talks was wrong-headed and unlikely to yield positive results. It’s that Kerry is so invested in trying to prop up a process that never had a chance of success that he’s willing to gamble with America’s credibility. While he proved able to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, Kerry’s naïve miscalculation about Abbas being willing or able to make peace has led to the current stalemate. Even worse, Kerry’s desperation has emboldened Abbas to keep asking for more and more with no sign that he will ever risk signing a deal that will end the conflict. The talk about Pollard is significant not just because it’s a bad idea but because it reflects American weakness rather than boldness.

But while Kerry’s self-image is sufficiently grandiose to insulate him against criticisms, those who will pay the price for his failures will not be so fortunate. The Ukrainians know they cannot count on the U.S., and by raising expectations that were inevitably dashed the secretary has increased the chances of violence in the wake of his Middle East fiasco. Nor will those who may eventually be faced with the reality of an Iranian bomb remember him kindly. Not long ago liberal pundits were singing his praises. Now he should consider himself lucky if he is not soon considered a consensus choice for the title of the worst secretary of state in recent memory.

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Twelve Questions About the “Peace Process”

In today’s New York Times, a letter from Dov Bruce Krulwich in Beit Shemesh, Israel, asks two questions about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard to encourage Israel to release Palestinian murderers to convince the Palestinians to discuss a Palestinian state, even though the Palestinians “refuse even to agree that the end game involves two states for two peoples”:

Shouldn’t a people who have never had a state be the ones making goodwill gestures to continue a process that will benefit them the most?

Why weren’t the previous good-will gestures, not to mention all the good-will gestures in the past 20 years, enough to expect the Palestinians to take a step themselves?

Those questions lead to some of my own:

In today’s New York Times, a letter from Dov Bruce Krulwich in Beit Shemesh, Israel, asks two questions about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard to encourage Israel to release Palestinian murderers to convince the Palestinians to discuss a Palestinian state, even though the Palestinians “refuse even to agree that the end game involves two states for two peoples”:

Shouldn’t a people who have never had a state be the ones making goodwill gestures to continue a process that will benefit them the most?

Why weren’t the previous good-will gestures, not to mention all the good-will gestures in the past 20 years, enough to expect the Palestinians to take a step themselves?

Those questions lead to some of my own:

  • Why do people have to be paid–in the form of cash, prisoners, freezes, etc.–to convince them to show up to negotiate a state for themselves?
  • Why do people who have signed a formal agreement, obligating themselves not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories, have to be paid to convince them to adhere to their agreement?
  • Why are people who have already been offered (and rejected) a state three times in the last decade–with each offer covering substantially all of the disputed territories and a capital in Jerusalem–entitled to a fourth offer?
  • Why is a putative Palestinian state, ruled half by a terrorist group and half by a “president” currently in the 10th year of his four-year term, with the two groups unable to live side by side in peace with each other (much less Israel), ready to be a state–even assuming agreement could be reached on its borders or any other issue?
  • Why is U.S. foreign policy–with the Arab world in a state of chaos ranging from Libya to Egypt to Syria to Lebanon–fixated on trying to establish another already-failed state right next to Israel?

Which brings one again to the two questions posed by Dennis Ross last month in the course of summarizing the Israeli position in the current impasse:

[I]f you [the Palestinians] believe in two states, why is it that Israel being the nation-state of the Jewish people is something that you can’t accept?

Why is it that self-determination for the Jewish people in a part of historic Palestine is something that you [the Palestinians] can’t embrace?

As the American secretary of state reduces his goal from (a) reaching a peace agreement to (b) reaching a “framework” for an agreement to (c) simply keeping the Palestinian “president” at the negotiating table for six months, to be purchased by more Israeli pre-negotiation concessions, the pertinent questions include those that Elliott Abrams asked yesterday:

Where does it stop? What are the limiting principles? …What will [the secretary of state] want next year [from Israel] when Abbas threatens to leave the table again?

The history of the “peace process” is now several stages past tragedy and farce. The side that supposedly wants a state won’t discuss one without compensation to do so; won’t accept a state as an end-of-claims solution but only as a stage in a continuing attempt to “return” to the other one; won’t agree that “two states for two peoples” is the goal of the process, much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state; can’t even hold an election, much less manage a stable state; ignores obligations under its prior agreement with Israel while asking Israel to believe it would abide by a new one; has already demonstrated three times in less than a decade it will not accept the “Everyone [Supposedly] Knows” peace plan; and does not even have a “president” legally in office, able to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinian groups, much less enforce any agreement he might reach.

Meanwhile, the U.S. leans on Israel, because a Palestinian state remains the central goal of an American foreign policy that long ago lost sight of the fact that–under the above circumstances–a Palestinian state would not be a “solution” to anything.

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Abbas Fled Talks the First Chance He Got

Though nothing is permanent in the Middle East peace process, for the moment it appears that the Palestinians have finally found a way to scuttle the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. Though Kerry had brokered an unlikely last-minute compromise that would have ensured the release of another batch of terrorist murderers that the Palestinian Authority had demanded, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wasn’t buying it. Today, he signed papers indicating the PA’s request to join 15 international agencies, a clear violation of their Oslo obligations and commitments made to the United States. This was a signal that Abbas wouldn’t keep negotiating in spite of Kerry’s efforts to give them what they wanted. As a result, Kerry has canceled his planned trip back to the region, leaving, at least for the moment, the impression that the talks are at an end.

If the Palestinians continue to refuse to keep talking, it will mean that the deal Kerry had cooked up to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agreement to release one more batch of terrorists including Israeli citizens and then another larger group of prisoners not convicted of violent crimes, will have been for nothing. That deal would have been a poor bargain for Israel in that it would have meant making real concessions — releasing Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorist murders as well as a promise of a limited freeze on building in the West Bank — in exchange for a man who might well be free on parole in 2015 anyway. The irony of having someone like Pollard who, though his crime was grave and did real damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship, acted in what he thought was Israel’s interest, being traded for people with Jewish blood on their hands, was so great that reportedly even the spy opposed it.

But the main conclusion to draw from these events isn’t about the Israeli desire to see Pollard freed after 28 years in prison but about Abbas’ desire to evade the peace process. What has happened isn’t so much a negotiation that went wrong, as it is the PA leader seizing the first opportunity that came his way to flee peace negotiations that he never wanted to join in the first place.

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Though nothing is permanent in the Middle East peace process, for the moment it appears that the Palestinians have finally found a way to scuttle the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. Though Kerry had brokered an unlikely last-minute compromise that would have ensured the release of another batch of terrorist murderers that the Palestinian Authority had demanded, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wasn’t buying it. Today, he signed papers indicating the PA’s request to join 15 international agencies, a clear violation of their Oslo obligations and commitments made to the United States. This was a signal that Abbas wouldn’t keep negotiating in spite of Kerry’s efforts to give them what they wanted. As a result, Kerry has canceled his planned trip back to the region, leaving, at least for the moment, the impression that the talks are at an end.

If the Palestinians continue to refuse to keep talking, it will mean that the deal Kerry had cooked up to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agreement to release one more batch of terrorists including Israeli citizens and then another larger group of prisoners not convicted of violent crimes, will have been for nothing. That deal would have been a poor bargain for Israel in that it would have meant making real concessions — releasing Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorist murders as well as a promise of a limited freeze on building in the West Bank — in exchange for a man who might well be free on parole in 2015 anyway. The irony of having someone like Pollard who, though his crime was grave and did real damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship, acted in what he thought was Israel’s interest, being traded for people with Jewish blood on their hands, was so great that reportedly even the spy opposed it.

But the main conclusion to draw from these events isn’t about the Israeli desire to see Pollard freed after 28 years in prison but about Abbas’ desire to evade the peace process. What has happened isn’t so much a negotiation that went wrong, as it is the PA leader seizing the first opportunity that came his way to flee peace negotiations that he never wanted to join in the first place.

 It should be remembered that getting Abbas to rejoin peace talks after boycotting them for most of the last five years was no easy task. Rather than talk without preconditions, the Palestinians had to be bribed with the release of four batches of terrorist killers. Though, as it is now clear, he did little in the talks other than to continually say no to any measures that would indicate the Palestinians were finally willing to end the conflict with Israel, he was continually praised and petted by both Kerry and President Obama for his commitment to peace. While the two continued to berate Israel as the obstacle to peace, it was always Abbas who was proving those who said last year that the Palestinians weren’t ready for peace right He refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn even in exchange for statehood and independence. Nor would he budge on the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants. Even when Netanyahu unhappily agreed to Kerry’s framework for future talks that was rooted in the 1967 borders, Abbas still said no.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that once the initial period of talks was about to expire, Abbas had no interest in continuing the negotiations even on terms that tilted the diplomatic playing field in his direction.

Why?

The answer is the same one that was apparent to just about everyone except Kerry last year before the process recommenced. With the Palestinians divided between Abbas’ fief in the West Bank and the Hamas-run independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza, Abbas had no room to maneuver to make peace even if he were truly willing to do so. Negotiating an agreement, even one that would give the Palestinians pretty much everything they want in terms of statehood in the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem, isn’t in his interest because signing such an agreement is far more dangerous than being blamed for scuttling the peace talks. The safer thing for Abbas is to seize any pretext to flee the talks and claim he’s seeking Palestinian independence via the UN, a futile gesture that will do nothing for his people.

While Abbas and his apologists claim he has done Kerry and Israel a big favor by sitting at the table with them the last several months and gotten nothing for it, the Palestinians have the most to gain from the process the secretary has promoted. Without it, there is no path to independence or economic stability for them. But since abandoning the talks allows Abbas to avoid having to sell a deal that ends the conflict to a Palestinian people that has been taught to view their national identity as inseparable from the struggle against Zionism, he prefers it to negotiations.

Were Abbas truly interested in peace, he could sit back and wait for Kerry to keep spinning deals that traded tangible Israeli concessions for continued talks. Instead, he has done what he did in 2008 when he fled the table to avoid having to say no to Ehud Olmert’s peace offer. While this isn’t the last chapter of Kerry’s efforts, those who are quick to blame Israel for everything should take note of Abbas’ behavior and draw the appropriate conclusions. 

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On Peace Talks and Prisoner Releases

We have come a long way from the days when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used to call for negotiations without preconditions. Now it has simply become expected that Israel must demonstrate “good will” by purchasing the presence of the Palestinians at the negotiating table with round after round of painful concessions. And few things must be more painful for Israelis than having to see those who murdered their loved ones walk free. It flies in the face of the most basic notions about justice and, of course, it’s tactically suicidal: those well-schooled in terror go free to resume their activities; those contemplating the path of terrorism know that in the event they are captured they will likely be released in a prisoner exchange eventually. Yet, the Israeli government has set a dangerous precedent and throwing on the breaks now may prove easier said than done.

The Palestinians have recently issued a new demand. Either Israel lets 1,000 Palestinian prisoners walk free or Palestinian negotiators will walk from the current round of peace talks. The previous nine months of fruitless negotiations were paid for by the Israelis agreeing to release 104 Palestinian security prisoners. These were to be released in stages so as to ensure that the Palestinians wouldn’t simply take the prisoners and run. At each stage the Palestinians would be obliged to continue with the negotiations and the next batch of terrorists would be released. But the deadline for the final installment of convicted criminals came and went this weekend. With Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas refusing to carry on with the talks, Israel announced that this last prisoner release would not be made.

This was hardly an unfair decision. With the Palestinians insisting the talks were over and that they were going back to the United Nations to pursue statehood there, the Israelis had nothing to gain from setting more terrorists loose. Yet, not releasing the prisoners was only ever going to invite more condemnation, despite the fact that threatening not to do so is arguably Israel’s way of attempting to keep talks open.

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We have come a long way from the days when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used to call for negotiations without preconditions. Now it has simply become expected that Israel must demonstrate “good will” by purchasing the presence of the Palestinians at the negotiating table with round after round of painful concessions. And few things must be more painful for Israelis than having to see those who murdered their loved ones walk free. It flies in the face of the most basic notions about justice and, of course, it’s tactically suicidal: those well-schooled in terror go free to resume their activities; those contemplating the path of terrorism know that in the event they are captured they will likely be released in a prisoner exchange eventually. Yet, the Israeli government has set a dangerous precedent and throwing on the breaks now may prove easier said than done.

The Palestinians have recently issued a new demand. Either Israel lets 1,000 Palestinian prisoners walk free or Palestinian negotiators will walk from the current round of peace talks. The previous nine months of fruitless negotiations were paid for by the Israelis agreeing to release 104 Palestinian security prisoners. These were to be released in stages so as to ensure that the Palestinians wouldn’t simply take the prisoners and run. At each stage the Palestinians would be obliged to continue with the negotiations and the next batch of terrorists would be released. But the deadline for the final installment of convicted criminals came and went this weekend. With Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas refusing to carry on with the talks, Israel announced that this last prisoner release would not be made.

This was hardly an unfair decision. With the Palestinians insisting the talks were over and that they were going back to the United Nations to pursue statehood there, the Israelis had nothing to gain from setting more terrorists loose. Yet, not releasing the prisoners was only ever going to invite more condemnation, despite the fact that threatening not to do so is arguably Israel’s way of attempting to keep talks open.

Indeed, it has been reported that the State Department was not at all pleased about the prospect of Israel backing out on the prisoner release. By all accounts U.S. officials have warned Israel that if the Palestinians leave talks then America will not be able to stop them from going to the UN. In reality there is much that the U.S. could do to keep Abbas from leaving the talks in the first place, if only it chose to. The Palestinian Authority is in a dire financial mess; the threat of withholding the large amounts of U.S. funding the PA relies on to function would be one way of tying the Palestinians to the peace table.

Yet remarkably, it seems that the Israeli government has actually come forward with still more concessions of its own. This time the Israelis are offering 400 Palestinian terrorists in return for six more months of negotiations. That’s quite an inflation from the 104 terrorists agreed upon for nine months of talks. No doubt sensing that he is gaining the upper hand in all of this, Abbas has now done what tyrants always do when they sense they’re being appeased: he has demanded more. This time, says Abbas, Israel will have to release 1,000 prisoners to renew Palestinian participation in peace talks.

That last demand should be a signal to America and the world that the Palestinians are not remotely serious about the negotiation process. Not that any such signal should be needed by now. Perhaps the international community would be forced to note this if the Israelis weren’t sending out their own signal, one that only serves to undermine their ability to hold out against such unreasonableness on the part of the Palestinians. By upping the offer to 400, Israel is indicating that it is perfectly reasonable that large numbers of murderers should be released in return for halfhearted Palestinian participation in talks. All that has to be haggled over now is how many.

But this is a disastrous message to send to the world. It gives the impression that a negotiated peace is not in the Palestinians’ interest–that they would indeed be better off taking unilateral moves, and that all these talks are primarily for Israel’s benefit. That last point is the line that Obama pushes too.

Oh, but there is just one other small thing that Abbas is asking for along with that minor matter of the 1,000 terrorists going free. Abbas is now saying that Israel must agree to transfer parts of Israeli controlled Area C of the West Bank into PA control. But this demand may give a clue about where Abbas is weak and what he most fears from Israel. He has been threatening that the Palestinians will go back to the UN to continue pushing for unilateral recognition there. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has suggested that Israel should simply let Abbas go. But Bennett and his party, along with much of the Likud, have also been calling for the annexation of Area C to Israel. It is possible that Abbas is demanding a reduction in the size of Area C precisely because he fears an Israeli annexation. That should tell Israel something about where it has some leverage.    

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Pollard for Murderers? A Bad Deal

Over the last 20 years, the name of Jonathan Pollard has hovered around the margins of the Middle East peace process. Almost every time the United States wanted to push the Israelis to make concessions that were unpalatable, some have suggested that the Jewish state might be enticed to swallow one bitter pill or another by the release of the former U.S. Navy analyst. Pollard, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 1985 for spying for the Jewish state, is a sore point for many Israelis as well as some Americans who believe, not incorrectly, that his sentence of life in prison was disproportionate to the crime and far more draconian than anyone else ever convicted of espionage for a U.S. ally. So it is hardly surprising that now that the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are imploding once again, talk of releasing Pollard has returned as well.

As it always does, the prospect of Pollard’s release will tempt the Israelis. Though what Pollard did was a crime and did great damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to American Jewry, Israelis rightly feel that he was sacrificed and left to rot in prison by their political leadership at the time of his actions (a troika that included the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir as well as Shimon Peres, who is currently serving as Israel’s president). But as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu may wish to secure Pollard’s release (something that he tried to do in negotiations with President Clinton in 1998), he shouldn’t take the bait. The odds are, Washington is bluffing about letting Pollard go. But even if President Obama is willing to take the heat from the U.S. security establishment and spring Pollard, Netanyahu should not trade the freedom of a score of Arab terrorist murderers (some of whom are Israeli citizens rather than residents of the West Bank) for Pollard.

The current impasse revolves around the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to agree to the framework for ongoing peace talks suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry because it mentions that peace means recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and would commit the Palestinians to ending the conflict. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wants no part of such a deal and, as has clearly always been his intention, would prefer to end any talks that might put him in the position of refusing a two-state solution preferred by Israel but which he has neither the will nor the ability to get his people to accept. But with the PA walking out of talks, Netanyahu sees no reason to follow through on the last batch of Arab prisoners whose release was part of the ransom offered to Abbas last year as the price for returning to the peace table after years of boycotting them.

Abbas has already seen that his intransigence won’t cause either President Obama or much of the Western media to blame him for the collapse of the talks. He thinks he is in the catbird seat and can make further demands on the Israelis in the form of the release of Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti (serving five life sentences for murders of Israeli civilians during the second intifada) and a settlement freeze in order to keep talking secure in the knowledge that the West will blame Israel no matter what he does. So in order to get Netanyahu, who has reluctantly agreed to Kerry’s framework that Abbas rejected, to keep paying, the Americans will have to come up with some form of pressure or gimmick. Though I doubt that President Obama is prepared to do battle with the U.S. intelligence community (which has an irrational obsession with keeping Pollard in prison until he dies) to make good on such an offer, the mere suggestion of the idea may be enough to keep the Israelis from walking away in frustration from the process.

But this is a bad deal for Israel on many levels.

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Over the last 20 years, the name of Jonathan Pollard has hovered around the margins of the Middle East peace process. Almost every time the United States wanted to push the Israelis to make concessions that were unpalatable, some have suggested that the Jewish state might be enticed to swallow one bitter pill or another by the release of the former U.S. Navy analyst. Pollard, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 1985 for spying for the Jewish state, is a sore point for many Israelis as well as some Americans who believe, not incorrectly, that his sentence of life in prison was disproportionate to the crime and far more draconian than anyone else ever convicted of espionage for a U.S. ally. So it is hardly surprising that now that the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are imploding once again, talk of releasing Pollard has returned as well.

As it always does, the prospect of Pollard’s release will tempt the Israelis. Though what Pollard did was a crime and did great damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to American Jewry, Israelis rightly feel that he was sacrificed and left to rot in prison by their political leadership at the time of his actions (a troika that included the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir as well as Shimon Peres, who is currently serving as Israel’s president). But as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu may wish to secure Pollard’s release (something that he tried to do in negotiations with President Clinton in 1998), he shouldn’t take the bait. The odds are, Washington is bluffing about letting Pollard go. But even if President Obama is willing to take the heat from the U.S. security establishment and spring Pollard, Netanyahu should not trade the freedom of a score of Arab terrorist murderers (some of whom are Israeli citizens rather than residents of the West Bank) for Pollard.

The current impasse revolves around the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to agree to the framework for ongoing peace talks suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry because it mentions that peace means recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and would commit the Palestinians to ending the conflict. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wants no part of such a deal and, as has clearly always been his intention, would prefer to end any talks that might put him in the position of refusing a two-state solution preferred by Israel but which he has neither the will nor the ability to get his people to accept. But with the PA walking out of talks, Netanyahu sees no reason to follow through on the last batch of Arab prisoners whose release was part of the ransom offered to Abbas last year as the price for returning to the peace table after years of boycotting them.

Abbas has already seen that his intransigence won’t cause either President Obama or much of the Western media to blame him for the collapse of the talks. He thinks he is in the catbird seat and can make further demands on the Israelis in the form of the release of Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti (serving five life sentences for murders of Israeli civilians during the second intifada) and a settlement freeze in order to keep talking secure in the knowledge that the West will blame Israel no matter what he does. So in order to get Netanyahu, who has reluctantly agreed to Kerry’s framework that Abbas rejected, to keep paying, the Americans will have to come up with some form of pressure or gimmick. Though I doubt that President Obama is prepared to do battle with the U.S. intelligence community (which has an irrational obsession with keeping Pollard in prison until he dies) to make good on such an offer, the mere suggestion of the idea may be enough to keep the Israelis from walking away in frustration from the process.

But this is a bad deal for Israel on many levels.

As I wrote on the 25th anniversary of his imprisonment, Pollard’s case is a mixed bag for supporters of Israel. As much as his sentence was an injustice, he is no hero and did grave harm. Moreover, the prospect that someone who committed espionage in the belief that he was helping Israel would gain his release in exchange for the freedom of those who indiscriminately shed Jewish blood is more than an irony; it’s an outrage that even the spy should reject.

Having already released scores of Arab murderers, who have been subsequently honored and embraced by Abbas, there is little incentive for Netanyahu to keep letting them out if the Palestinians are not going to commit to peace talks whose purpose is an end to the conflict. If he is going to be blamed for the collapse of Kerry’s initiative no matter what he does, it would be a mistake to start making further concessions that will come back to haunt him later. The problem with injecting Pollard into peace talks is that it is the sort of American concession for which Israel will pay a disproportionate price with little prospect of receiving what it wants. That’s what happened the last time he offered to make territorial concessions in exchange for Pollard’s freedom. In the end, the Palestinians got the land, and Israel got neither Pollard nor peace.

If the Palestinians want something from Israel they should be prepared to pay for it by demonstrating their willingness to end the conflict and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. In essence a trade for Pollard now would be a substitute for getting the Palestinians to make those assurances. However much they may want Pollard, making such a swap would be against the long-term prospects of both Israel’s security and peace.

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Blaming Israel Despite the Facts

The facts are no obstacle for those who are determined to stick to their narrative about Israel not wanting peace. With Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process on the brink of failure, the New Republic’s John Judis has trotted out the familiar themes about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu being the one to blame. Judis goes on at length about Netanyahu’s perfidy but toward the end of the piece, he is forced to let drop an important nugget of information. When asked by Kerry to keep negotiating on the basis of the framework he has crafted to try and give both sides something to work with, Abbas said no. As Judis writes:

Kerry proposed that the two sides agree to the framework with reservations—a tactic that had doomed the Quartet’s framework proposal—but Abbas was not ready to agree to the proposal even with reservations.

Let’s get this straight. Kerry has been lionized by the left for attempting to revive the talks in spite of the fact that the division among the Palestinians (Hamas in Gaza and Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank) made it unlikely that Abbas could or would say yes to peace terms that he had turned down in 2008 and that his predecessor Yasir Arafat had rejected in 2000 and 2001. But when the secretary put forward a framework that was hardly to Netanyahu’s liking because of its reliance on the 1967 borders, he said yes and Abbas said no even with the proviso that an acceptance would not commit the Palestinian Authority to its terms. And yet even though Abbas’s decision makes a fourth historic no to peace terms from the Palestinians in the last 15 years, Judis still thinks the collapse of the talks is Israel’s fault.

How is that possible? Judis doesn’t even bother defending this preposterous proposition directly since his work is so lazy that he writes as if all his readers will naturally assume that nothing that actually happened leading up to Abbas’s no must as a matter of course be Israel’s fault. But the flimsy case he does build against Israel tells us more about his own well-documented prejudices about the key issue that led to Abbas’s decision—recognition of Israel as a Jewish state—than it does about Netanyahu.

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The facts are no obstacle for those who are determined to stick to their narrative about Israel not wanting peace. With Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process on the brink of failure, the New Republic’s John Judis has trotted out the familiar themes about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu being the one to blame. Judis goes on at length about Netanyahu’s perfidy but toward the end of the piece, he is forced to let drop an important nugget of information. When asked by Kerry to keep negotiating on the basis of the framework he has crafted to try and give both sides something to work with, Abbas said no. As Judis writes:

Kerry proposed that the two sides agree to the framework with reservations—a tactic that had doomed the Quartet’s framework proposal—but Abbas was not ready to agree to the proposal even with reservations.

Let’s get this straight. Kerry has been lionized by the left for attempting to revive the talks in spite of the fact that the division among the Palestinians (Hamas in Gaza and Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank) made it unlikely that Abbas could or would say yes to peace terms that he had turned down in 2008 and that his predecessor Yasir Arafat had rejected in 2000 and 2001. But when the secretary put forward a framework that was hardly to Netanyahu’s liking because of its reliance on the 1967 borders, he said yes and Abbas said no even with the proviso that an acceptance would not commit the Palestinian Authority to its terms. And yet even though Abbas’s decision makes a fourth historic no to peace terms from the Palestinians in the last 15 years, Judis still thinks the collapse of the talks is Israel’s fault.

How is that possible? Judis doesn’t even bother defending this preposterous proposition directly since his work is so lazy that he writes as if all his readers will naturally assume that nothing that actually happened leading up to Abbas’s no must as a matter of course be Israel’s fault. But the flimsy case he does build against Israel tells us more about his own well-documented prejudices about the key issue that led to Abbas’s decision—recognition of Israel as a Jewish state—than it does about Netanyahu.

This is, after all, the same author who wrote Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, a book dedicated to the proposition that the problems of the Middle East stem from the decision to create a Jewish state in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine–putting himself on record as believing that Israel should never have been born and that American support for the concept was a mistake imposed upon the nation by Jewish lobbying and political considerations. You would think that someone who studied that period would understand the centrality of the concept of the Jewish state both to the inception and the theoretical conclusion of the conflict. But Judis sticks to the anti-Israel talking points of the day and says this demand—rightly accepted by the United States despite some of Kerry’s later comments—that the Palestinians accept that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people is designed to throw a monkey wrench into the talks.

As Rick Richman noted, Dennis Ross confirms that the Jewish state issue was part of the negotiations during the Clinton administration. How could it have been avoided since the whole point is that its acceptance signifies that the Palestinians are giving up their century-long struggle against Zionism? Judis also brings up settlement construction as a deal breaker but neglects to note that almost all the houses slated for construction are to be built in the settlement blocs and neighborhoods in Jerusalem that will be part of Israel in any agreement. Complaints about them are both disingenuous and distractions from the Palestinian refusal to accept terms that signify an end to the conflict. Abbas told President Obama on his visit to Washington earlier this month that he would not agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, give up the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants, or accept that any agreement means the end of the conflict. What’s more, even though he won’t keep negotiating, he expects Israel to release more terrorist murderers from its jails (the ransom he exacted from Kerry and Netanyahu as the price for his return to the talks last year) and now also wants the release of Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader serving five life-in-prison sentences for murders of civilians carried out at his behest during the second intifada and a settlement freeze to keep him at the table.

And yet Judis still says, “blame should almost certainly be assigned to Netanyahu and the Israelis.” It’s illogical, but if you enter a discussion of this topic believing Israel has no right to exist in the first place, it’s easy to see why you would think there’s nothing wrong with Palestinian intransigence. The problem is not so much Judis’s specious arguments as the pretense that he actually cares about who is to blame for preventing an outcome—a two-state solution—that he disdains.

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Three More Palestinian “No’s” to Peace

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.

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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.

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Israel Can Make Ultimatums Too

As is his custom, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas has been making declarations and ultimatums, issuing threats about what unilateral actions the PA will take should Palestinian demands not be met. With the time frame for the current round of U.S.-sponsored negotiations about to expire, it appears that Abbas is working hard to create a climate in which the Palestinians will be able to exit talks confident in the knowledge that Israel will be made to take the blame. With both the European Union and the Obama administration already pushing a version of events that sets Israel up as the fall guy in the event the Palestinians walk, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s main concern is fast becoming how best to deflect the accusations once they start raining down. But if the Israelis simply attempt to avoid being blamed, then they risk either being forced into making a never-ending series of concessions, or otherwise putting themselves in a position of weakness. If the Israelis cannot find a way to set the agenda surrounding these negotiations then they will lose, and then they’ll be blamed.

Returning from his visit to Washington, Abbas declared that he will not “capitulate.” Presumably this is a reference to the pressure he is under to say that he accepts Israel as a Jewish state–in line with Secretary Kerry’s overarching peace framework. Yet Abbas also said cryptically, “We carried the deposit, and we are guarding the deposit.” This perhaps refers to the make-or-break issues that the Palestinians are insisting they will not compromise on. This ought to be enough to convince anyone that chances for peace really rest on the attitude of the Palestinians. Yet, Abbas is also maneuvering matters so as to blame the Israelis when his side backs out of Kerry’s process. Most critical of all is the question of whether Israel will release more Palestinian terrorists and whether or not the Palestinians will continue to pursue statehood through international bodies.

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As is his custom, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas has been making declarations and ultimatums, issuing threats about what unilateral actions the PA will take should Palestinian demands not be met. With the time frame for the current round of U.S.-sponsored negotiations about to expire, it appears that Abbas is working hard to create a climate in which the Palestinians will be able to exit talks confident in the knowledge that Israel will be made to take the blame. With both the European Union and the Obama administration already pushing a version of events that sets Israel up as the fall guy in the event the Palestinians walk, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s main concern is fast becoming how best to deflect the accusations once they start raining down. But if the Israelis simply attempt to avoid being blamed, then they risk either being forced into making a never-ending series of concessions, or otherwise putting themselves in a position of weakness. If the Israelis cannot find a way to set the agenda surrounding these negotiations then they will lose, and then they’ll be blamed.

Returning from his visit to Washington, Abbas declared that he will not “capitulate.” Presumably this is a reference to the pressure he is under to say that he accepts Israel as a Jewish state–in line with Secretary Kerry’s overarching peace framework. Yet Abbas also said cryptically, “We carried the deposit, and we are guarding the deposit.” This perhaps refers to the make-or-break issues that the Palestinians are insisting they will not compromise on. This ought to be enough to convince anyone that chances for peace really rest on the attitude of the Palestinians. Yet, Abbas is also maneuvering matters so as to blame the Israelis when his side backs out of Kerry’s process. Most critical of all is the question of whether Israel will release more Palestinian terrorists and whether or not the Palestinians will continue to pursue statehood through international bodies.

To get the current round of negotiations going Israel was essentially forced into purchasing the Palestinian presence at the negotiating table by agreeing to release 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists. These releases were to be made in installments so as to ensure that the Palestinians didn’t simply take this costly concession and run. The final installment is due shortly. However, the Palestinians are now saying that if we get to April without a framework having been agreed upon, then they will discontinue their involvement in the talks anyway.

A growing number of Israelis, including Cabinet ministers, are asking why Israel should make this painful and dangerous concession if the Palestinians won’t even agree to continue with the very peace talks for which these releases are being made. In response to the suggestion that the prisoner release won’t be completed without further assurances that talks will carry on, Abbas is now threatening that if the prisoner release is not forthcoming then the PA will resume its efforts to achieve statehood unilaterally at the United Nations, in direct contravention of the Oslo peace agreements.

In all of this Abbas is essentially acting as a self-fulfilling prophet. He is constructing a series of trajectories all of which lead to the same outcome: pursuing statehood at the UN. The only thing that would prevent this would seem to be Abbas agreeing to extend the negotiation period, but he has already pledged he won’t do that. So whether Israel releases the prisoners or not, it seems clear that Abbas will not agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, meaning he won’t signup to the framework, meaning he won’t extend negotiations, meaning he will go to the UN. Given that the only person who has the final say in any of this is Abbas, it’s strange to think that Israel will likely take the blame.

Indeed, it increasingly appears that no matter what Israel does, much of the international community, and particularly the Obama administration, will castigate Israel. The EU ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen has made no secret of this and Brussels is only holding off on implementing a divestment policy for as long as negotiations continue. Secretary Kerry has made thinly veiled threats about the boycotts and isolation that await Israel should talks fail, implying that this is only to be expected if Israel won’t surrender to pressure.

In the now infamous Bloomberg interview from earlier this month, Obama painted Netanyahu as a hardened obstructionist, responsible for jeopardizing Israel’s entire future. Condescendingly Obama asked what alternative Netanyahu had to offer. Well, perhaps Israel should start reminding observers that it does have an alternative, and its not one that the Palestinians, Obama, or the Europeans are going to like very much.

In January, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote about reviving Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal/unilateral annexation. Large and growing numbers of Israeli parliamentarians are advocating that if talks fail Israel should take the initiative and begin by applying full Israeli sovereignty to the strategically important West Bank settlement blocs.

Netanyahu need not embrace this policy himself. But it wouldn’t hurt to remind those it concerns that there are forces gathering in Israel that are prepared to do this. Obama implies the negotiations are some huge favor to Israel, Abbas acts as if being part of talks to create the Palestinians a state is some terrible sacrifice. Israel needs to avoid the kind of weakness that would make it possible for it to be blamed by projecting its strength. Warning Abbas and Obama about the prospect of Israeli ultimatums would be one way of doing this.     

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The Fake Palestinian Generational Divide

New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren hit on a clever way to reiterate a familiar theme for the newspaper’s readers in today’s story that sought to explore what she called a “generational divide” among Palestinians. The centerpiece of the article is an interview with Tareq Abbas, the youngest son of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in which the former explains why he supports a one-state solution to the conflict with Israel rather than the two-state formula that his father purports to seek. Along with other younger Palestinians quoted in the piece, Tareq Abbas says that he is tired of waiting for his father’s peace strategies to succeed and now simply wants “civil rights” that would presumably be his if the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean became a single democratic entity.

The conceit of this argument is that since Israel will never allow Palestinians independence, they should instead simply wait for demographics and international pressure to force the Jews to give up their state. This notion of a generational divide also supports the claims of those who believe Israel must act now to divest itself of the West Bank, lest it eventually be forced to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic one.

But the problem with the premise of this story is that it is false. Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat rejected Israeli offers of statehood three times. He’s currently in the process of refusing another one that would probably, like the three previous peace bids, give the Palestinians the independent state they say they crave in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza (which is currently ruled by Hamas as an independent Palestinian state in all but name, but never mind), and a share of Jerusalem. The generational divide here isn’t so much about how many more Arab states there should be but rather the nature of the rhetoric employed in order to make the case against the existence of one solitary Jewish state.

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New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren hit on a clever way to reiterate a familiar theme for the newspaper’s readers in today’s story that sought to explore what she called a “generational divide” among Palestinians. The centerpiece of the article is an interview with Tareq Abbas, the youngest son of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in which the former explains why he supports a one-state solution to the conflict with Israel rather than the two-state formula that his father purports to seek. Along with other younger Palestinians quoted in the piece, Tareq Abbas says that he is tired of waiting for his father’s peace strategies to succeed and now simply wants “civil rights” that would presumably be his if the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean became a single democratic entity.

The conceit of this argument is that since Israel will never allow Palestinians independence, they should instead simply wait for demographics and international pressure to force the Jews to give up their state. This notion of a generational divide also supports the claims of those who believe Israel must act now to divest itself of the West Bank, lest it eventually be forced to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic one.

But the problem with the premise of this story is that it is false. Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat rejected Israeli offers of statehood three times. He’s currently in the process of refusing another one that would probably, like the three previous peace bids, give the Palestinians the independent state they say they crave in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza (which is currently ruled by Hamas as an independent Palestinian state in all but name, but never mind), and a share of Jerusalem. The generational divide here isn’t so much about how many more Arab states there should be but rather the nature of the rhetoric employed in order to make the case against the existence of one solitary Jewish state.

The last 20 years since the Oslo Accords have shown that while the vast majority of Israelis are ready to trade land for peace, even those Palestinians anointed by the West as peacemakers are unwilling or unable to take yes for an answer. The difference between the generations cited in Rudoren’s article is not about goals but rather how to obtain it. The elder Abbas still feels obligated to go through the motions of negotiating with the United States and Israel for a two-state solution that he—and perhaps everyone else on the planet other than Secretary of State John Kerry—knows he will never accept. Doing so would require him to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn, and that is something that the political culture of the Palestinians will not let him do.

If the elder Abbas really were a champion of two states for two peoples, he would have said yes in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered him a state and he wouldn’t be threatening to quit the current negotiations by refusing to say that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Doing so would, as Palestinians have frequently admitted, undermine their “narrative” and the goal of forcing the Israelis to allow a “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants, thus transforming the Jewish state into a bi-national one in which Arabs would be in the majority. Palestinian nationalism came into existence as a rejection of Zionism and what is needed is a new vision that will contemplate a future for their people alongside Israel rather than locked in perpetual conflict with it.

Younger Palestinians have no such compunctions about pretending to want to live in peace alongside Israel. What they want is to extinguish Jewish sovereignty in any part of the country. This has nothing to do with a desire for equal rights or democracy, which, despite the assertions of his son, the elder Abbas (currently serving in the ninth year of the four-year presidential term to which he was elected) denies his people, as do his Hamas rivals in Gaza.

If the Palestinians wanted an independent state alongside Israel, they could have had it more than a decade ago and can still claim it by Abbas saying two little words—“Jewish state”—that signify he means what he says about peace. The fact that he won’t means that the contrast between him and younger Palestinians who say they want one state to replace Israel is a difference without a distinction.

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Obama Setting Israel Up to Take the Blame

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.

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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.

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Lying About Abbas Won’t Bring Peace

With Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas meeting today with President Obama, the focus on the Middle East peace process has shifted, at least for the moment, away from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his alleged shortcomings. But while Netanyahu’s most recent meeting with the president was preceded by an Obama interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg in which the Israeli was lambasted and Abbas praised, there was no such ambush for the Palestinian. Most everybody in Washington and a great many Israelis are at pains to paint Abbas in the best possible light. When Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accurately described the Palestinian as someone who would never be a partner for a final peace agreement, Cabinet colleague Tzipi Livni and Israeli President Shimon Peres both spoke up in his defense.

Livni, who has at times criticized Abbas herself, did not specifically refute any of Yaalon’s points but preferred instead to say that his shortcomings and record were irrelevant to the task at hand and must be put aside. Peres spoke in the same vein saying that Abbas was a “good partner” and that the point of the talks was to move ahead toward peace regardless of the obstacle. That seems much in line with the American approach that is to never directly criticize Palestinian incitement and the refusal of Abbas and his fellow Fatah members to give up their hopes of flooding Israel with the descendants of the 1948 refugees.

In short, peace process advocates believe the only way to plow ahead to an agreement is to keep the pressure up on Netanyahu to give the maximum while treating Abbas with kid gloves, all the while fearing to offend him or to give his enemies within Fatah, not to mention Hamas and Islamic Jihad rivals, any ammunition with which to attack him as soft on the Israelis. Anything else, they tell us, risks blowing up the process leaving no hope for peace.

But the problem here isn’t so much the double standard for Netanyahu or even the blatant dishonesty involved in American and Israeli officials attesting to the sincerity and good intentions of the Palestinian leader. It’s that this theory of peace negotiating has already been tried and failed with disastrous results.

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With Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas meeting today with President Obama, the focus on the Middle East peace process has shifted, at least for the moment, away from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his alleged shortcomings. But while Netanyahu’s most recent meeting with the president was preceded by an Obama interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg in which the Israeli was lambasted and Abbas praised, there was no such ambush for the Palestinian. Most everybody in Washington and a great many Israelis are at pains to paint Abbas in the best possible light. When Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accurately described the Palestinian as someone who would never be a partner for a final peace agreement, Cabinet colleague Tzipi Livni and Israeli President Shimon Peres both spoke up in his defense.

Livni, who has at times criticized Abbas herself, did not specifically refute any of Yaalon’s points but preferred instead to say that his shortcomings and record were irrelevant to the task at hand and must be put aside. Peres spoke in the same vein saying that Abbas was a “good partner” and that the point of the talks was to move ahead toward peace regardless of the obstacle. That seems much in line with the American approach that is to never directly criticize Palestinian incitement and the refusal of Abbas and his fellow Fatah members to give up their hopes of flooding Israel with the descendants of the 1948 refugees.

In short, peace process advocates believe the only way to plow ahead to an agreement is to keep the pressure up on Netanyahu to give the maximum while treating Abbas with kid gloves, all the while fearing to offend him or to give his enemies within Fatah, not to mention Hamas and Islamic Jihad rivals, any ammunition with which to attack him as soft on the Israelis. Anything else, they tell us, risks blowing up the process leaving no hope for peace.

But the problem here isn’t so much the double standard for Netanyahu or even the blatant dishonesty involved in American and Israeli officials attesting to the sincerity and good intentions of the Palestinian leader. It’s that this theory of peace negotiating has already been tried and failed with disastrous results.

I know it’s hard for many in the mainstream media to think back as far as last week or last month (ancient history in the news business), let alone 10, 15, or 20 years back. But the theory of negotiating with the Palestinians that is being employed by both the Obama administration and Israelis like Livni and Peres, was already tried in the 1990s.

Throughout that decade, critics of the Oslo process tried to point out that Abbas’s predecessor Yasir Arafat was using his new power at the Palestinian Authority to undermine any chances for peace. But Palestinian incitement, Arafat’s duplicitous statements about peace in which he appeared to back compromise when speaking to Israelis and Westerners while promising in Arabic to Palestinian audiences to continue the struggle for Israel’s destruction, and the connections between Fatah and terror were all ignored by the U.S. and many in Israel. Even when they were forced to concede that these things were true, merely to speak of them was regarded as proof of insufficient dedication to peace.

It was only in retrospect that some of the veterans of that unfortunate era realized they had made a terrible mistake. Rather than interpreting American and Israeli forbearance as a reason to do what was necessary to make peace, Arafat (with his top aide Abbas always nearby) saw it as a reason to dig his heels in even deeper and to continue playing a double game. When the peace process collapsed after Arafat refused Ehud Barak’s two offers of statehood including almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem and responded with a terror war of attrition, the illusion that peace could be bought by turning a blind eye to Palestinian misbehavior and intransigence was shown to be a myth. Some of those peace process advocates and negotiators, like Dennis Ross, subsequently admitted that they should have been tougher on Arafat. But those involved need to admit that the problem wasn’t so much the lack of pressure on Arafat but the reality of a Palestinian political culture that simply allowed no room for peace.

What is going now is nothing less than a repetition of the same dynamic. Abbas is a bit more presentable than Arafat and his pro-peace statements are more convincing than those of his old boss. But they are balanced by the double-dealing that Arafat turned into an art form. And he is drawing the same erroneous conclusions about how far he can go as Arafat did.

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl points this out in an excellent column today in which he dares to tell the truth about Abbas:

The Palestinian president — who was elected to a four-year term in 2005 and has remained in office for five years after its expiration — turned down President George W. Bush’s request that he sign on to a similar framework in 2008. In 2010, after Obama strong-armed Netanyahu into declaring a moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, Abbas refused to negotiate for nine of the designated 10 months, then broke off the talks after two meetings.

Diehl also understands how the refusal to judge Abbas by the same standards as Netanyahu is making peace impossible:

Why does Abbas dare to publicly campaign against the U.S. and Israeli position even before arriving in Washington? Simple: “Abbas believes he can say no to Obama because the U.S. administration will not take any retaliatory measures against the Palestinian Authority,” writes the veteran Israeli-Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. Instead, Abbas expects to sit back if the talks fail, submit petitions to the United Nations and watch the anti-Israel boycotts mushroom, while paying no price of his own.

The point here is that we have already seen this movie and know the ending. If the president is sincere about wanting to broker peace, he needs to lay it on the line and make sure Abbas knows that the U.S. will blame him–and not an Israel that has already signaled that it will, albeit with misgivings, agree to Kerry’s framework–for the collapse of the talks. But if the president continues to double down on a policy of letting the Palestinians off the hook, it is laying the groundwork for a repeat of the same disaster that ended the Oslo process. The resulting bloodshed should be blamed primarily on Abbas. But Obama, and those Israelis who continue to lie about Abbas for what they believe is the sake of peace, will also bear some responsibility.

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The Question Obama Should Ask Abbas

Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry “put the kibosh on the demand which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made central to peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” according to the report in The Times of Israel:

“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it [Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] again and again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear,” Kerry said.

Kerry noted that the “Jewish state” issue was addressed by UN resolution 181 in 1947, which granted international recognition to the fledgling state of Israel. There are “more than 40 – 30 mentions of a “Jewish state” in the resolution, Kerry said, and added that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “confirmed that he agree it [Israel] would be a Jewish state” in 1988 and in 2004.

Seth Mandel and Tom Wilson have each addressed this issue in excellent posts. If it’s been internationally recognized since 1947, and if Arafat “confirmed” it in 1988 and 2004, what is the problem with confirming it again? Kerry’s argument reminds one of the reply that Talleyrand once made to a diplomat who proffered the “goes-without-saying” argument to him: “if it goes without saying, it will go still better by being said.”

This past Monday, the State Department tried to walk back comments from the prior week that indicated the U.S. was about to bail on any requirement that the Palestinians recognize a Jewish state. Spokesperson Jen Psaki had the following colloquy with reporters:

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Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry “put the kibosh on the demand which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made central to peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” according to the report in The Times of Israel:

“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it [Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] again and again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear,” Kerry said.

Kerry noted that the “Jewish state” issue was addressed by UN resolution 181 in 1947, which granted international recognition to the fledgling state of Israel. There are “more than 40 – 30 mentions of a “Jewish state” in the resolution, Kerry said, and added that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “confirmed that he agree it [Israel] would be a Jewish state” in 1988 and in 2004.

Seth Mandel and Tom Wilson have each addressed this issue in excellent posts. If it’s been internationally recognized since 1947, and if Arafat “confirmed” it in 1988 and 2004, what is the problem with confirming it again? Kerry’s argument reminds one of the reply that Talleyrand once made to a diplomat who proffered the “goes-without-saying” argument to him: “if it goes without saying, it will go still better by being said.”

This past Monday, the State Department tried to walk back comments from the prior week that indicated the U.S. was about to bail on any requirement that the Palestinians recognize a Jewish state. Spokesperson Jen Psaki had the following colloquy with reporters:

QUESTION: There seems to be some confusion over some comments that you made on Friday about the whole recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. I’m wondering if you can address those. Has the Administration changed its position on this?

MS. PSAKI: We have not. Our position has been for quite some time that Israel is a Jewish state.

Then Psaki said the issue was something to be determined in negotiations and that she wasn’t going to say what should or should not be in a framework agreement. Now the secretary of state says it’s a “mistake” to raise the issue. With this administration, one can never rely on its “positions.” They are always subject to revision when the going gets tough. The red line turns out not to be red. The position stated with “Period!” at the end turns out to have a hidden asterisk. The position held “for quite some time” turns out to have no operational significance. It’s just a “position.”

In his March 4, 2014 address to AIPAC, after his meeting the day before with President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized the importance of the issue to Israel:

Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — (applause) — where the civil rights of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, are guaranteed. The land of Israel is the place where the identity of the Jewish people was forged. It was in Hebron that Abraham bought the cave of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs. It was in Bethel that Jacob dreamed his dreams. It was in Jerusalem that David ruled his kingdom. We never forget that, but it’s time the Palestinians stopped denying history. (Applause.) Just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to recognize a Jewish state. (Applause.)

President Abbas, recognize the Jewish state, and in doing so, you would be telling your people, the Palestinians, that while we might have a territorial dispute, the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own is beyond dispute. (Applause.) You would be telling Palestinians to abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees, or amputating parts of the Negev and the Galilee. In recognizing the Jewish state, you would finally making clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict.

So recognize the Jewish state. No excuses, no delays, it’s time. (Applause.)

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has been one of Israel’s central demands in the “peace process” long before Netanyahu brought the issue into its current focus. It is the critical indicator of whether the Palestinians are engaged in a search for a two-state solution or a two-stage plan. So perhaps President Obama will use his meeting Monday with President for Life Abbas to address this issue. He can ask him the same question he used in another connection in his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg: “If not now, when?”

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