Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has plenty of reasons to doubt the utility of direct negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader has given no indication during months of American shuttle diplomacy that he’s ready to cede most of the West Bank and share Jerusalem—the broadly accepted terms for peace with the Palestinians. Instead, Netanyahu has indicated he intends to build new homes for Jews in the West Bank when a 10-month moratorium on settlement expansion expires in September. Trust between the two men, who got to know each other across the bargaining table more than a decade ago, is nonexistent.
And yet, it would be a mistake for Abbas to reject the face-to-face talks Washington is so desperately trying to convene (the Arab league this week gave Palestinians a green light for direct talks but Abbas is still weighing his options). Negotiations, even when they fall short, can have useful consequences. In this case, they might compel Netanyahu to explain what he really means when he says he’s willing to make painful sacrifices for peace. That vague formulation has allowed Netanyahu to present himself as a moderate while presiding for the past 16 months over one of the more hawkish coalitions in Israel’s history. If the sacrifices he has in mind even vaguely resemble what Palestinians are demanding (and what two Israeli prime ministers have already offered), Netanyahu will lose some of his coalition partners and likely be forced to form more centrist government.
If, instead, Netanyahu is offering little more than symbolic gestures, Abbas will be in a better position to elicit American pressure on Israel. Some Palestinian officials want to see President Obama draft his own peace plan, as President Clinton did a decade ago. Others are talking about asking Washington to refrain from vetoing Security Council resolutions against Israel. The only way Abbas might find Obama receptive to these ideas is if Palestinians give direct talks a genuine try.
Then there’s the matter of settlement expansion. Nearly 500,000 Jews already live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas that Israel captured in 1967. There’s no guarantee direct talks would persuade Netanyahu to continue the moratorium on settlement expansion after September. But rejecting the talks simply allows Israel to continue building without pressure or penalty from Washington or the European Union. Why make it easy for Netanyahu?
Finally, direct talks are simply the coin of the realm: Israelis and Palestinians have been engaging each other face-to-face for almost two decades. Avoiding Netanyahu might have made sense while the Obama administration was leaning on the Israeli leader. It helped get Netanyahu to accept the idea (albeit conditionally) of a Palestinian state. For Netanyahu to continue doing so would alienate an American administration that has shown more sympathy for the Palestinian cause than its predecessors. Worse, it would raise questions about Abbas’s own readiness to reach a peace agreement.