Sunday, August 15, 2010

Jackson Diehl/ The mystery about Abbas: Does he really want peace?

(Jackson Diehl-Washington Post).Eighteen months ago, when the then-new Obama administration tried to jump start Middle East peace negotiations, the Palestinian president balked. He said he would not agree even to meet the newly-elected Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, unless Netanyahu made several big concessions in advance -- including recognition of a Palestinian state on the basis of Israel's 1967 borders and a freeze on all Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.

Convinced that Netanyahu was the problem, the Obama administration spent the next year in a crude and clumsy effort to extract those concessions. Netanyahu stoutly resisted; the administration belatedly discovered that it could not compel a democratic ally to comply with its demands. Eventually a rough compromise emerged: Netanyahu publicly accepted the idea, but not the pre-defined borders, of a Palestinian state; and he imposed a partial and temporary freeze on the settlements, which is due to expire in September. The administration agreed that should be good enough to start formal peace talks.

But Abbas, who watched this diplomatic drama from the sidelines, never changed. He's still refusing to meet Netanyahu unless the Israeli leader -- or Obama -- gaurantees those big concessions on borders and settlements in advance. He's held firm through multiple visits by the administration's long-suffering envoy, former senator George Mitchell. He's resisted pressure from Arab leaders. He's been warned that the White House -- home to the most pro-Palestinian president since Jimmy Carter -- is about to lose patience with him. Still, he refuses to budge.

This is not, as Abbas's spokesmen contend, a matter of either principle or domestic politics. The Palestinian president has negotiated with numerous Israeli leaders and did so without a settlement freeze or other preconditions. His domain in the West Bank is as quiet as it has ever been under Israeli occupation. Elections have been put off and Hamas bottled up in the Gaza Strip. Average Palestinians are more likely to quietly welcome a U.S.-brokered peace process than rebel against it.

So what explains the intransigence?

In part, I think it stems from Abbas's deep distrust of Netanyahu, dating back to the latter's first stint as prime minister in the 1990s. As one of Obama's advisors, Dennis Ross, recounted in a memoir, Abbas jokingly threatened to jump out a window if Netanyahu won reelection (he lost). When I met Abbas in May of last year, I got the impression that he was expecting Netanyahu's second government to end like his first: He would be forced from power by his intransigence on peacemaking and Washington's displeasure with it.

Yet Netanyahu has not followed that path. He has at least appeared to be more flexible and more open to a peace settlement. Perhaps because of his deep concern with the threat posed to Israel by Iran's nuclear program, and the need for U.S. support against it, Netanyahu appears to be seriously considering a deal on Palestinian statehood -- though not, perhaps, on terms that Abbas or other Palestinian leaders would accept.

So why not begin negotiations and put the Israeli leader on the spot? If Netanyahu's terms are unreasonable, he is likely to come under renewed pressure from Obama, who seems to have made a rare emotional investment in the goal of Middle East peace. By holding out, Abbas only focuses pressure on himself -- more pressure, he said the other day, than he has ever experienced. He also opens the way for Netanyahu to resume settlement construction when his partial freeze expires.

Here we come to the real mystery about Abbas: Does he really want peace? Or would he, like Yasser Arafat before him, prefer the messy status quo to going down in history as the Palestinian who once and for all accepted that a Jewish state would fill two-thirds of the former Palestine? Abbas received a far-reaching offer from Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, that met the territorial conditions he now sets. He refused to accept it even as a basis for negotiations. All through the last year, the Obama administration has disregarded that history; it has told itself and anyone who asked that Abbas was ready for a two-state settlement. In the next few days or weeks, it may find out if it was wrong.