Last week I debated The Crisis of Zionism with my friend David Suissa at Temple Israel in Los Angeles. Whenever I suggested that Benjamin Netanyahu might be less than enthusiastic about birthing a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines, David responded that at least Netanyahu was willing to talk. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, by contrast, won’t negotiate at all.
At first glance, the point seems indisputable. After all, Netanyahu and Abbas publicly agree that the reason Israel and the Palestinians are not negotiating is because Abbas has made a settlement freeze, and more recently a prisoner release, a precondition for talks. “We are completely serious about talks with the Palestinians, but unfortunately the Palestinian side refuses,” declared Netanyahu in January. Abbas recently echoed the point, declaring, “I will not return to the negotiations without freezing settlement activities.”
One can debate whether there’s any merit to Abbas’s public stance. On the one hand, Palestinian leaders rightly believe that the rapid settlement growth of the 1990s helped torpedo the Oslo peace process. (As did, of course, Palestinian terrorism and Yasser Arafat’s pathetic response to the parameters Bill Clinton laid out in December 2000). On the other, Abbas’s public refusal to negotiate lets Netanyahu off the hook and raises genuine questions about whether Abbas—a leader who lacks both charisma and democratic legitimacy (his term as head of the Palestinian Authority expired in 2009)—really wants to make the gut-wrenching compromises that a deal would require.
But more interesting than whether Abbas is justified in refusing to negotiate is this odd truth: He has been doing just that. Although neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders like talking about it, the two sides have spent a fair amount of time talking since Israel’s faux-settlement freeze expired in 2010. (I say “faux” since, according to Peace Now, Israel began more work on new housing units in the West Bank in the freeze year of 2010 than it had in 2008). Last summer, with the blessing of both Netanyahu and Abbas, Israeli President Shimon Peres and top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met repeatedly, even poring over maps of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Abbas himself met Peres in London. This January, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met five times in Jordan.
What’s going on? One answer is that Abbas is just going through the motions: sending his minions to meet with the Israelis when America or its Arab allies twist his arm painfully enough, but with no interest in the talks actually going anywhere. The second is that Abbas has been doing exactly what his American critics want him to: probing—absent preconditions—to see whether Netanyahu is serious. It’s worth remembering that in 2008, Abbas negotiated intensively with Ehud Olmert without a settlement freeze, presumably because he believed that Olmert genuinely wanted to relinquish almost all of the West Bank. I know from my own reporting for The Crisis of Zionism that some Obama administration officials believe Abbas would have continued those negotiations—sans a settlement freeze—had Netanyahu been willing to pick up where Olmert left off, something Netanyahu refused to do. Abbas also responded positively to Obama’s May 2011 speech proposing negotiations based upon the 1967 lines plus swaps, calling it "a foundation with which we can deal positively,” even though Obama’s speech clearly represented a bid to restart negotiations without a settlement freeze (and thus convince the Palestinians to shelve their statehood bid at the UN).
What is Abbas’s real motivation? There’s one way to find out: For Netanyahu to finally accept the parameters that Obama laid out a year ago, and declare his willingness to use the 1967 lines as the basis for talks, as Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert did before him. In so doing, we’ll learn what Abbas is really afraid of: endless negotiations that can’t produce a deal or serious negotiations that actually could. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know it’s in Israel’s interest to find out. Over to you, Shaul Mofaz.