WaPo: Obama Misjudged Abbas, Setting Stage for “Breakdown” in Peace Talks

If talks break down between Israel and the Palestinians, who will be to blame? In a scathing op-ed today, the Washington Post’s deputy editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl suggests that while Abbas will drive the failure, at least part of the problem may be in the tactics employed by President Obama.

Citing what the headline calls “Obama’s Middle East Fallacy,” Diehl points to the Administration’s repeated references to the harm that will befall Israel if talks should fail, especially in the President’s recent interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg.  Such talk serves only to remove any pressure from the Palestinians to compromise, a view evinced by the Palestinians at the outset of the Obama presidency in none other than an interview between Abbas and Diehl.

In a seminal May 2009 article entitled “Abbas’s Waiting Game on Peace With Israel,” Diehl captured the same refusal by Abbas to make the kind of tough compromises needed to achieve peace with Israel. At the time, Diehl reported that given the unmatched public American pressure directed at Netanyahu by the White House, in an interview with the PA President  “in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City,” on the eve of his meeting with President Obama, “Abbas insisted that his only role was to wait.”

Why should the Palestinians need to make any compromises? Abbas asked Diehl. Instead, he insisted that he would “wait for the Obama administration to force a recalcitrant Netanyahu” to accept his demands, and “Until Israel meets his demands,… he will refuse to begin negotiations.”

Fast-forward five years. Back in Washington, Abbas has just witnessed another public White House blast of cold Presidential air directed at the Israeli Prime Minister–equally as counter-productive but even more odd, given the level of behind-the-scenes cooperation the Israeli government is devoting to helping Secretary of State Kerry achieve success in developing the “Framework Document” for peace talks between the two sides. So extreme is the Palestinian intransigence, so stark the contrast with Israeli compromise, that Abbas is now refusing to even acknowledge the basic underpinnings of a two-state solution: two-states for two peoples. If Abbas can’t acknowledge that the other people are the Jewish People, and the other state in the two state package is the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel, what are the negotiations really about?

But as Diehl points out, President Obama isn’t making his job any easier by letting Abbas off the hook. When looking for American pressure on the Palestinian side to parallel the arctic blast he gave Netanyahu, Diehl notes that there doesn’t seem to be any:

So far, there’s no sign of it: no presidential interviews, no statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, no leaks of potential U.S. punitive measures if Abbas — repeating a long personal and Palestinian history — says no. Therein lies the fallacy that has hamstrung Obama’s Middle East diplomacy for the past five years.

Unsurprisingly, the Administration’s lack of pressure has coincided with a lack of flexibility on Abbas’ part.

And while some commentators have suggested that Abbas is simply incapable of delivering on any compromises because of internal political considerations, Diehl cites other analysts to argue that the Administration’s tactics are a big part of the problem. “Why does Abbas dare to publicly campaign against the U.S. and Israeli position even before arriving in Washington? Simple: … 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,” Diehl concludes.

Indeed, according to a new report by Grant Rumley, a visiting fellow at the Mitvim Institute and his colleague Jonathan Schanzer, a scholar of  Palestinian affairs at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Abbas has been taking full advantage of the Administration’s lack of pressure as part of a broader plan for action against Israel after the talks fail. “It is clear,” they write, “that the Palestinians have a ready-made policy to pursue should the current talks break down. Unlike in 2000, when the collapse in diplomacy prompted a violent intifada, this failure will yield a diplomatic intifada, whereby the Palestinians pressure Israel using their leverage with the international community. It’s nonviolent, but its war by other means. And it’s likely that Washington will be caught in the crossfire.”

Sadly the Palestinian unwillingness to compromise and the misguided policies that compound it are not new, and not likely to disappear, despite the recent and historical evidence that pressure on the Palestinians coupled with close coordination with Israel is the only proven formula to advance the peace process.

For a deeper look at the cultural origins of the Palestinian refusal to compromise, see Deborah Danan’s essay in the Tower Magazine’s June 2013 issue.

[Photo: Pete Souza / Wikimedia Commons]