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Abbas’s Creative Intransigence

Last month, I dismissed John Kerry’s shawarma diplomacy as “purposeless,” not least because the Palestinians have shown no indication they are ready to sit down to high-level peace talks, and thus the secretary of state’s presence is a card too high to have played at this juncture. Kerry wanted to inject some immediacy into the peace process by kickstarting negotiations, but took a gamble by opening himself up to failure so early in his tenure.

The reason for Kerry’s trip seemed to be to deliver a message in person to the Palestinians: President Obama erred in demanding a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, and he is not only lifting that demand but would like to impress upon Mahmoud Abbas the necessity of Abbas lifting that demand as well. The Palestinian reaction to Kerry’s request shows just how creative Abbas can be in avoiding peace negotiations. One of Abbas’s negotiators leaked to the Times of Israel an unofficial response, which managed to both comply with Kerry’s request and avoid negotiations:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year offered to free 50 Palestinian security prisoners who have been held since before the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, in a bid to get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come back to the peace table, The Times of Israel has learned.

However, Abbas rejected the offer.

Today, a senior Palestinian official told The Times of Israel, the Palestinians might agree to renew talks with Israel if Netanyahu releases all 107 of the pre-Oslo veterans still in jail, most of whom have blood on their hands.

The Prime Minister’s Office had no comment on the matter.

The Palestinian official’s comments came as US Secretary of State John Kerry prepared to head back to the region for his fifth visit in four months, as he bids to cajole Netanyahu and Abbas to return to the negotiating table.

We have written time and again here about the Palestinian president’s intransigence. But now Kerry is experiencing it for the first time as secretary of state, and it’s doubtful it will be the last. Ever since Obama pushed the two sides away from the negotiating table in his first term, Abbas has responded to subsequent invitations from Benjamin Netanyahu with a simple strategy: ask for a concession to begin talks, and when Netanyahu agrees to it add another condition. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Often, these stalling tactics include demanding the release of murderers and/or terrorists, which has the added advantage, as Abbas sees it, of weakening Netanyahu among his coalition partners. Abbas strews the landscape with diplomatic land mines. So Kerry’s personal trip to the Middle East was met on the Palestinian side with feigned compliance: Perhaps they’ll drop the demand for a settlement freeze after all. But in its place, Abbas will double the prisoner demand as a possible precondition.

Why do I write possible precondition? The Times of Israel explains:

The Palestinian official, who asked not to be named, is one of Abbas’s close associates. He said that the release of all the pre-Oslo “veterans” is a “strategic” requirement for the PA. Choosing his words carefully, he said their release could prove sufficient to bring the PA back to the peace table, but he refused to say so explicitly, and could not rule out additional Palestinian conditions. In the past, Abbas has indicated that he would not return to the talks while Israel continued building new settlement homes, and figures released on Sunday showed a sharp rise in building starts at settlements in the first three months of this year.

It would be more accurate, I suppose, to call it not a “possible precondition” but a “precondition to possible talks.” Abbas is demanding the prisoner release as a precondition to permitting Kerry and Netanyahu to beg some more for talks–at which point Abbas will, as he always does, level a new precondition.

The demand was made in the context of Kerry’s return trip to the Middle East, so it should be interpreted as a starting point for negotiations. It is Abbas’s way of telling Kerry that peace negotiations–which Abbas does not want, because he does not want peace–will have to come at a price. This is going to present something of a challenge for Kerry, because Abbas is making a very important point here. Making concessions only to begin talks tells Abbas that he can rig the process to get what he wants without having to negotiate in good faith.

Abbas is currently playing games with Kerry and Netanyahu, but the latter doesn’t have to get on a plane and take days out of his busy schedule to fly halfway around the world only to be rejected by Abbas. Kerry does. If he can get Abbas to negotiate face to face without preconditions, he will at least accomplish something on the trip (although even that is lowering the bar). But if he doesn’t think he can get that, he will only be permitting Abbas to waste everyone’s valuable time.

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