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.
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.