Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Obama Administration’s Giant Problem: How to Get the Palestinians to Negotiations without Pressure and Threats?

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By Barry Rubin

The Obama Administration now has a huge problem in its Israel-Palestinian policy about which no one is yet speaking. Since the White House lacks the stomach to deal with it the problem won't be evident for some time, except perhaps to the readers of these words.

Here’s the issue. It’s simple. It should be obvious: How is the Obama Administration going to get the Palestinians to the table now that Israel has proved itself flexible, ready for negotiations, and willing to make peace. Because, despite President Obama's claim in his Cairo speech that the Palestinian situation is "intolerable" and they are ready to do a deal, that just isn't true.

After eight months of back and forth, Israel has agreed to freeze construction on West Bank settlements. Despite the Administration’s earlier promise to get something for Israel from the Arab side in exchange for this concession, the White House failed completely.

The White House did issue a statement setting forth its own ideas for a peace agreement which, while asking big concessions of Israel also promises several very important things that Israel wants. (On this, see here). But skepticism is understandable: Will the Administration just keep taking away from what Israel gets by adding to what it gives the Palestinians hoping to appease the latter into negotiating seriously?

The bottom line, however, is this: The Obama Administration has run out of unilateral concessions it can demand from Israel. The Palestinian Authority (PA) still refuses to do anything. It merely whines, complains, and demands more. Every time Israel makes a concession, the PA says it is worthless. Now it is insisting, just as a start, that Israel also stop all construction in Jerusalem and make the freeze permanent.

To put it simply: A pressure Israel only policy won't work because Israel won't give any more and no matter of Israeli concessions will change PA policy any way. The PA will, following its pattern, argue: you got us this much, now get us some more.

So what is the Obama Administration going to do? To get the PA to talk it must either get more from Israel, which is unlikely, or—gasp!—pressure the PA.

In principle, the PA should be eager for talks. Obama believes that the Palestinians situation is "intolerable," so aren't they eager for progress? And also the PA owes Obama big-time. The United States pressures Israel on its behalf; gives it military training; diplomatic support; and lots of money. Obama has made speech after speech promoting their cause and exalting the Palestinians without any real criticism.

He could ask for concessions. He could demand concessions. He could pressure them for concessions.

And what’s the big concession? Come negotiate and get your state, which would be the same size as all the pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza Strip, plus billions of dollars in compensation payments, pretty please?

Yet it is hard to see this happening. Why? The traditional reason for not wanting to pressure the Palestinians is that US. governments thinks it must prove itself champion of their cause in order to gain backing from the Arab and Muslim world.

With the Obama Administration, however, there is something more. First, it hates to pressure anyone (or at least anyone except Israel). Second, it is less fond of Israel. Third, it sees itself as progressive and Third World in its orientation and thus has a horror of pushing anyone perceived to be on the “left” by the strange definitions prevailing today.

Then there’s still another problem. No matter what the Obama Administration does the PA will say, “No.” And then what will the White House do? Provoke an open rift; heated criticism; cutting off aid? Not a chance. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas might even, gasp!, threaten again for a week or two that he's going to resign.

Mind you, the PA leadership can’t give in even if it wants to do so because of internal politics. Abbas knows, too, that his colleagues will broil him if he makes concessions. We already saw how this works. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas promises Obama to hang back on pushing the Goldstone report. Even more radical PA leaders attack Abbas. Abbas gives in.

Also, never forget Hamas. Fear of Hamas, combined with hope that Hamas will make an alliance with itself, also keeps the PA from doing anything conciliatory. Does the Obama Administration really think it can make a permanent full peace agreement with a bunch of genocidal-intentioned Usama bin Ladin clones sitting over in the Gaza Strip? That’s a joke.

Then, too, the chickens are coming home to roost on the Obama Administration policy of being so determined not to scare anyone. If Abbas stubbornly refuses to do anything, he  knows that Obama won’t do anything to him. Is he going to rush to go off to Camp David under these conditions? If this is going to happen at all the administration is going to have to spend about six months intensive effort on this project.
What’s left? Can the U.S. government go back to Israel and demand it stop building in Jerusalem in exchange for nothing? This will tear up a U.S.-Israel agreement just made, reducing American credibility to zero.

Remember that Israel has frozen construction for ten months. Will any progress be made, or the PA make any compromises, before that deadline expires? And having achieved nothing is the U.S. government going to demand an extension? (Probably, but will Israel give it one; and will the Administration, having failed to pressure the Palestinians or obtained any compromise from them really punish Israel for saying that the experiment had failed and it is returning to normal construction?)

So unless you hear about tremendous U.S. pressure on the PA to back down, setting off an angry anti-American reaction in Palestinian politics, don’t believe that the administration is serious about advancing the peace process. And if you do hear about such things, don't believe they will get anywhere. 

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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