Deal or No Deal in Palestine

By James Gundun

Washington D.C. The Middle East has a new game to play. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, plagued by internal and external pressure, issued a peace call for the ages during his opening address at Israel’s Presidential Conference, titled ‘Facing Tomorrow.’ Netanyahu voiced a sound suggestion to rekindle the peace process.

‘I ask of you," he appealed, channeling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "something I have not even asked of myself. We must discuss peace as soon as possible, and I am ready to do so. But these cannot be closed talks. We must say these things to the world, to our people and to the Palestinian people.’

Months of back-channel talks rushing into the open would breathe fresh air into a stale conflict. Back-room deals have their place and time, but conflict between Israel and Palestine is a unique situation that would benefit from increased public discourse. The obvious downside is an invitation to criticism, a risk multiplied by false positions.

Motive becomes an immediate question with Netanyahu rushing so suddenly towards peace. Is he sincere or responding to international opposition created by the Goldstone report? His cause is instrumental in determining whether he’s ready to negotiate and compromise, if Palestinians will accept him, and if he can strike a deal.
Netanyahu applied a softer touch in contrast to his confrontational, sometimes braggadocios language, affirming his commitment to negotiations along with support for Palestinians, who could stand to hear more grace from him. Going for the cheese, he broke off his Hebrew and told the audience in English, "It’s possible to change the world. Yes we can."

Netanyahu seemed sincere, but as time passed it became evident that he was subtly shifting the burden on Abbas. He stated, ‘The time has come to end this conflict; tell them that the time has come for two nations to live side-by-side in peace and security. I believe that peace with the Palestinians is possible, but that requires brave leadership on both sides.’

Goldstone probably isn’t talking. Netanyahu doesn’t seem concerned with the report itself, armed with assurances from UN ambassador Susan Rice that America will block its progress at every turn. Netanyahu is also aware that advancing the peace process could invite the Goldstone report into negotiations rather than exclude it. Abbas’s weakness is certainly showing though, and this could be Netanyahu’s true target.

Why, if Netanyahu is serious about advancing the peace process, did he undercut Abbas in front of his own people? Gloating that Abbas twice backed down at the UN, Netanyahu would’ve seethed had Abbas bravely stood up. He weakened Abbas and is now cornering him, cleverly disguising whiplash as diplomatic outreach.

Netanyahu isn’t offering a real opening for negotiations if his position is absolute. A sincere proposal would temporarily freeze settlement growth, not insist ‘the Palestinians should already be talking to us.’ If Netanyahu wants recognition of a Jewish Israel and ‘natural growth’ at the outset of a deal then he doesn’t have one. Abbas simply cannot accept these conditions and survive.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat quickly countered rumors of an imminent settlement deal between Israel and America. Erekat warned during an interview with Al-Ayyam, ‘There are no interim solutions. It’s not a precondition for negotiations, but an explicit Israeli commitment that they have to meet.’ He said there will be ‘no agreement’ until a total settlement freeze, meaning President Obama can make or break a deal.

Back at ‘Facing Tomorrow,’ Obama spoke glowingly of Israel via video screen and exalted its deep bond with America. President Simon had invited him to attend, but Obama declined due to other commitments. His absence carried a hint of irony when he declared, ‘our moment in history is filled with challenges that test our will and invite pessimism’.

Obama is bringing a sizable slice of that pessimism upon himself. From an Israeli perspective, accepting Peres’s invitation would’ve payed big dividends. Obama has been accused of not personally reaching out to Israelis and continues to poll low despite a video stream of goodwill – because video is impersonal. Peres invited him to spread the Midas touch, but the truth is Obama needs to personally visit the region and meet people on both sides of the wall.

He must personally reach out to Palestinians if he’s going to dilute their demands.

That Netanyahu refuses to stop settlement growth is expected, but Obama is wasting his credibility and goodwill in Palestine by toeing the Israeli line. Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to America, explained, ‘The agreement was a time-limited halt – or a pause, if you will – to the settlement construction, that would allow for a certain amount of what we would call ‘certain life growth’ in the territories.’

Reality is harsh. ‘Life growth’ of the few is outweighing the fate of two nations and withholding the effects of peace on the Middle East. When asked whether Obama signed off on this agreement, Oren responded, ‘That was the understanding. I think everything is agreed on and the [Obama] administration is fully informed about any construction activities in the territories.’

Two days ago Abbas told reporters, ‘Stopping the settlement and the unilateral measures secures the return of the negotiations between the Palestinian and the Israeli side.’

Israel and America might have a deal, but it won’t get them anywhere with the Palestinians and could impel Abbas to seek his own alternate power source. After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Abbas issued a perceived threat to Hamas: ‘Based on the constitution, we are obliged to issue a decree on October 25 to hold presidential and parliamentary elections before January 24, and we will issue it.’

Abbas cannot be so bold as to believe he will poll high in the West Bank or Gaza. He’s likely paying Hamas back for the Goldstone affair, pressuring it to take or leave its own deal with Egypt. Hamas has stepped back to make sure everything is exactly as it wants, a lost opportunity to be the first signatory, but officials assure the deal will be signed.

And Abbas kept his hand out, vowing, ‘The reconciliation is sacred for us. We cannot shut the doors and say we do not want to reconcile. We cannot say that, because we want to restore the unity of our people and restore the unity of our land in order to face the occupation and the political process.’
It’s only a matter of time before Hamas returns to the political mix, extra motivation for Netanyahu to push for immediate negotiations.

Netanyahu and Obama can still present an offer that won’t humiliate Palestinian leadership, which is counterproductive to the peace process. They’re certainly ready and eager to restart negotiations, nobody can doubt that, but Palestinians aren’t going to take their deal as it stands. Netanyahu and Obama would commit to a two year settlement freeze were they hell bent on establishing two states. Such a move would, as Abbas said, ‘secures the return to negotiations.’

Obama reportedly wants both parties to agree on two years as their goal – put the money up. Deal-making in the Holy Land should be geared towards the millennium, not six months, a year or two.

James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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