Sunday, May 2, 2010

On the Verge of Israel-Palestinian Authority Talks and What Comes After?

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By Barry Rubin

Gradually, the U.S. government is constructing the basis for indirect Israel-Palestinian talks which will be simultaneously meaningless and hailed--at least by the U.S. government--as a great achievement. The latest two developments are the Arab states' approval of the talks and a U.S. pledge to the Palestinian Authority (PA) that there will be no Israeli construction in the West Bank or Jerusalem outside the 1967 line.

All of these details are interesting. It is a sign of the weakness of the PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, that it needs the cover of Arab regimes. Incidentally, an amazing thing happened when the PA last did this a few months ago. The Syrian government opposed giving approval and the New York Times simply edited this material out of the Syrian statement it quoted. It was a graphic example of how slanted the media is today, in that case trying to show that Syria was moderate when that was most untrue.

As for the construction freeze, the U.S. government neither tried nor delivered to Israel any comparable concession on the PA's part. Anti-Israel incitement on the media and elsewhere will continue as will, no doubt, the PA's official honoring of terrorists who killed Israeli civilians. This imbalance will also not be reported generally.

The Obama Administration has basically signalled to the PA that it is in the driver's seat. The more it sabotages talks, Abbas and his colleagues have been shown, the more pressure might be put on Israel. But no real pressure will be put on the PA. Thus, U.S. policy has given the PA every incentive to be intransigent.

How long will these talks go on? Israel's commitment to a freeze has a time limit until around July. The PA thus has good reason to stall so that the talks will still be going on when the deadline comes. Then the U.S. government will press Israel to renew the freeze--even though it has received nothing material in return--lest it "wreck" the talks.

What will the Obama Administration do if the talks are deemed to have "failed." Well, first and foremost, it has an incentive not to say that the talks haven't worked out since the mere holding of indirect conversations may be its sole foreign policy success. So unless there is a really obvious collapse, it presumably will go on pretending for months--and one would think through the November U.S. congressional elections--that progress is being made.

There are many rumors of some dramatic action--an imposed solution? an international conference? U.S. backing for a PA declaration of independence?--if the talks break down as the next step. Much of the analysis of this issue, especially on the right, is based on a series of false premises. Obama is seen as a semi-demonic force who can do anything he wants and will sacrifice everything in order to damage Israel. This perspective is not borne out by the administration's behavior so far.

The main goal of the Obama Administration is to look good, implying that it is succeeding in the "peace process," and to avoid trouble on the Israel-Palestinian front so it can get on with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Iran nuclear issue. Clearly, this is the least friendly administration to Israel in history, yet it is also a government which has taken no material step to pressure or punish Israel despite a fair amount of growling.

It is also a White House aware that this is the least popular policy in its entire foreign policy repertoire. Congressional Democrats have criticized the president's strategy--albeit politely--to a considerable extent. Public opinion polls show that the American people don't like it. The White House is certainly not blind to the consequences of these problems.

If, however, the Obama Administration invests too much prestige and political capital on Israel-PA issues, it is going to be the big loser. An international summit would end in humiliating disputes, for example. The same applies to other extreme measures. The PA is simply not going to cooperate even with a pro-Palestinian White House; the Arab states are not going to give U.S. policy any real help on this or other issues.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains quite strong. He has won a strong victory in his own party for his policy and the harder-line right has remained pretty quiescent. The country does not blame Netanyahu for the problems in U.S.-Israel relations because they have been so obviously due to Obama, his behavior, and to his lack of sympathy for Israeli needs.

In addition, Israelis are quite skeptical about any likelihood for peace, progress in negotiations, and the reliability of the PA as a negotiating partner. They are also quite aware that the U.S. government has let them down so far over Iran.

And so, as in 1991-1992 and after 16 more recent years of direct talks, there will probably once again only be indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. One can't take even this for granted until they actually happen. But one can take for granted that these negotiations and any U.S. efforts to broker instant peace will fail completely.

So what is the Obama Administration likely to do? Let's review

I think the administration has four restrictions:

A. They don't want to push the PA as they view that as hurting their Arab/Muslim support which will actually produce some benefit for them. This is an illusion but they believe it. So they won't blame or threaten the PA unless it goes really over the line. They also know the PA would reject every demand thus leading to escalation. That's one reason why this administration's can never be even-handed as long as it maintains its current thinking: because it can only criticize or make demands from one side, Israel.

B. They don't want to bash Israel because of congressional and public opposition, especially in an election year. They may also sense that they have asked Israel for as much as it's going to give, especially since it has received nothing much in return.

C. They don't want to spend too much political capital in pushing the "peace process" or rush to say that talks have failed because it makes them look bad, especially because they are going to do very badly with Iran and probably Afghanistan and maybe Iraq. That's too much failure. Also, they have at least some sense now that they aren't going to get a peace agreement.

D. Their goal is to avoid crisis, both to tell the domestic audience they are doing great, and also to tell Arabs and Muslims that the process is advancing so they don't have to obsess about it and, instead, can help U.S. policy achieve various goals. In other words, keep things relatively quiet.

Therefore, I'd suggest that the Obama Administration will seize on every session held and minor agreement made in order to claim success, at least for this year. Expect to see the headline: Obama Policy Achieves Progress by Getting Israelis and Palestinians to Talk.

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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