Commentary Magazine


Mideast Game of Chicken Continues

The news today out of Ramallah is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is saying that he will continue to participate in the peace talks that have been orchestrated by the Obama administration. Though the Palestinians have been threatening to walk out if Israel doesn’t extend a freeze on all settlement-building in the West Bank, it appears that the parties are trying to weasel their way out of this impasse.

While the continued talking will, no doubt, be heralded by the Americans as proof that the talks have a good chance of succeeding and that their goal of a Palestinian state and genuine peace within a year will be achieved, realists know that it means nothing of the kind. All that the continued talking means is that the game of chicken being played by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t over.

Like the daredevil teenagers in Rebel Without a Cause, the two leaders are competing to see which one of them will jump out of their cars first before their vehicles fly off the cliff. Both know there isn’t much hope for actual peace. Netanyahu is aware of the fact that if the Palestinians ever actually accepted a state in almost all the West Bank with a share of Jerusalem in exchange for a complete end to the conflict with no right of return for refugees, the Israeli people would almost certainly demand that this offer — whether it was wise policy or not — be accepted. But he also knows that Abbas cannot possibly accept this deal, for the same reasons he rejected such an offer in 2008, when Ehud Olmert put it on the table in the wake of the 2007 Annapolis Summit, not to mention Yasir Arafat’s similar refusal of such a deal at Camp David in 2000: the rejectionist culture of Palestinian politics and Hamas won’t allow it.

But since he doesn’t want to say no to Barack Obama, Netanyahu must play along and try to avoid being put in the position of spiking the talks when he knows that, sooner or later, Abbas will have to bail out to save his skin. Similarly, Abbas — who is dependent on support from the West as well as Israel for his survival — is hoping that Netanyahu can be maneuvered into a position of blame for the failure to make “progress” rather than have his own impotence highlighted.

The peculiar thing about this game of chicken is that each leader’s domestic opposition is acting as if the official optimism about the possibility of peace emanating from the two camps is proof that a deal is about to be signed. Yet the majority of Palestinians and Israelis seem to be taking all this in their stride, and their indifference demonstrates that they understand that what is going on is an elaborate farce being staged for the benefit of Obama and Hillary Clinton rather constituting a genuine chance for peace. But both Hamas and Israeli right-wingers, who are respectively fulminating against Abbas and Netanyahu, as if the two were on the verge of a pact, are, along with the White House, the State Department, and most of the mainstream media, the only ones who don’t get it.

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