This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his entourage will be visiting Washington and meeting with Pres. Obama tomorrow, but it all comes very much in the context of last month’s highly successful trip by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and an entourage of PLO leaders, the centerpiece of which was a meeting on June 9 with Obama in the White House. The logic of the Abbas visit, which had originally been scheduled to follow one week after a similar meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, originally seemed lost due to Netanyahu’s cancelation of his meeting. He returned to Israel from Canada, rather than continuing on the United States, as scheduled, probably to avoid causing yet another embarrassment to Obama, given the Gaza flotilla attack. Theoretically, no one would have scheduled a meeting between Obama and Abbas before the aborted Netanyahu meeting, but neither party had any grounds or reasons to postpone it, so the Palestinians came as scheduled. As it turns out, the visit could hardly have been more successful under existing circumstances and proved to be an impressive surprise. More importantly, it has raised a significant set of challenges for the Israeli prime minister as he prepares for his delayed appearance.
The most important aspect of the Palestinian visit was the striking demonstration of Palestinian forthcomingness on peace, especially from Abbas personally. Crucially, when the PLO came under fairly heavy pressure from predictable quarters not to return to proximity talks after the flotilla attack, it firmly pointed out that while it condemned Israel’s actions, no purpose would be served by bowing out of the American-brokered talks. The two issues were separate and not connected, they pointed out, and could have added that refusing to continue with diplomacy on final status issues would actually reward rather than punish Israel and pointlessly damage the Palestinian national interest. The wisdom of this decision became clear during the visit, which would not even have taken place if Palestinians walked away from the talks or put them on hold.
What the Palestinians were able to do, for the first time in many years, arguably since the late 1990s, was position themselves as a real diplomatic and political partner in peace to the US administration, something the present Israeli government has most certainly failed to do. The Americans and Palestinians found themselves in broad agreement on the most pressing points. They agreed that a way has to be found to relive the suffering of the people of Gaza without strengthening Hamas and that breaking down the commonality of interests between Gazans and their rulers is crucial. On vexed question of negotiations, it was expected that the Palestinians were going to be harangued with a mantra of returning to direct talks as soon as possible and without conditions. The Palestinian position was unusually serviceable: they told the Americans that while they are all in favor of direct talks, the proximity talks should yield some progress of some kind first to demonstrate that there is, in fact, a point to negotiating with this Israeli government. The essential point they were making, and that was accepted by the administration, is that direct talks are desirable and important, but that more diplomatic and political groundwork is needed before they can successfully be launched. The Palestinian suggestion to the Americans is that they work out with Israel what, exactly, is going to be tackled in the early stages of direct talks, and that when the US is satisfied that the talks will have merit and substance and can explain how to the Palestinians, they will agree to resume direct negotiations. It has also helped that while the Israelis have been insisting that the proximity talks focus on procedural issues and water, Palestinians have been pushing the issues of borders and security, which is an agenda that is very compatible with the White House approach. In other words, the Palestinians came with a reasonable and constructive position and proved themselves serious, thoughtful and, from the administration’s point of view most importantly, helpful.
This helpfulness is rooted in the sense of a party that is willing to take risks and even political hits in a common agenda. During the fall, and again in the spring, when the Obama administration had two confrontations with Israel over settlements, the first the question of a freeze and the second about continued building in occupied East Jerusalem, the Palestinians largely failed to take advantage of the tensions by giving the impression that they were creating complications of their own. There was no sense in the administration as it was feuding with Netanyahu that on the Palestinian side was a team that would and could run with the ball if it were passed to them, rather than taking it and going home, or sitting on the ground and sulking. This impression is deadly for Palestinian diplomacy, and more than any other factor it limits the extent to which a White House is likely to pressure Israel within the constraints of the American political dynamic. If they have confidence in the Palestinian response, they are much more likely to do so, as Netanyahu discovered in the 1990s. If they do not, then the whole point of such pressure is greatly reduced and they are therefore much less likely to risk it. We are not quite at that stage yet, but last week’s visit was the biggest step in that direction in a long time.
The positive developments were not limited to dealings with the administration. Abbas had a long and unprecedented dinner with 30 key Jewish American leaders and took spontaneous, candid and blunt questions for about an hour and a half. Much of what he said surprised and impressed the audience, especially his forthright acknowledgment of the deep Jewish as well as Palestinian historical ties and attachment to the lands of Israel and Palestine. Abbas’ only public appearance at the Brookings Institute was another uncharacteristically successful exercise in public diplomacy for the Palestinian president. The president began with a boilerplate speech in Arabic that was brief enough not to bore the audience, but soon settled into a Q&A session with the audience moderated by Brookings VP Martin Indyk. Abbas spoke in imperfect but perfectly intelligible English, and was relaxed, avuncular and extremely effective. At the event I was sitting next to an extremely experienced former American diplomat and Middle East expert who commented that he had never seen him perform so well, and I certainly agreed. The general mood at the end of the event was, ?why doesn’t he do more of these things?? In other words, both in style and substance his message was not only receivable but pleasantly surprising and indeed encouraging to a Washington audience. Abbas’ outreach to Jewish Americans was so successful that it prompted the Washington Institute on Near East Policy to issue a compendium of statements he had made during the trip to emphasize the new message the Palestinians were sending, and the extent to which it was being well received not only by the US government but also by many in the pro-Israel community as well.
In subsequent Palestinian diplomacy, Abbas and others have been emphasizing the borders and security issues, and the need for the United States to secure some clarification on Israel’s position on these matters in order for the stage to be set for purposive direct negotiations. Abbas took things a stage further with an unprecedented direct outreach to the Israeli public through a number of reporters gathered to ask him questions in which he emphasized his commitment to reaching a peaceful, two-state solution. Even among Israelis it’s becoming clear that the Palestinians have a goal, a vision and a strategy, even if they may not have the power to unilaterally achieve it. The problem for Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues is that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to define what exactly they want, what their vision of the future might be, and what is their strategy to achieve it. Netanyahu himself says he is in favor of a two state agreement, but with so many conditions and caveats as to make this essentially meaningless or at least extremely dubious. Defense Minister Barak is all for it, but even he is weak on details. Foreign Minister Lieberman has categorically stated his disinterest and lack of faith in the negotiating process, and recently publicized his own completely preposterous ?plan? that essentially centered around the removal of large Arab population groupings in Israel. Others in the inner cabinet have dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian state ever emerging. This calculated ambiguity from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet in general only opens the door to speculation that in fact the majority in the present Israeli government believes a negotiated agreement is neither possible nor desirable and simply does not wish to say so directly so as not to further alienate the international community and, above all, the United States which regards such an agreement as a national security priority. Therefore, one of the most potent elements of the new Palestinian outreach has been to place a major onus on the Israeli prime minister to demonstrate that he really isn’t fundamentally opposed to a viable, reasonable two-state agreement and that he’s willing to take meaningful steps in that direction.
It is very likely that in their upcoming talks, Obama will be pressing Netanyahu on borders and security, terms of reference for direct negotiations which must be clarified for them to make any sense, and on the need to extend the partial, temporary settlement moratorium which is due to expire in the fall. In the last two months of 09 and the first few months of this year, until the flap over settlements in Jerusalem following the Biden visit to Israel, it was the Palestinians who were seen as the primary obstacle to diplomatic progress. Now the onus is most decidedly shifted to the Israelis, and Netanyahu had better not show up in Washington empty-handed, or with a message considered utterly inadequate by the administration, or he may find himself not only once again perceived as an obstacle, but with, most unusually, the Palestinians being perceived by the Americans as genuine and helpful political partners.
In other words, Netanyahu has some very difficult and important decisions to make in the run-up to this meeting, and the stakes are higher than anyone had anticipated. The partial American defense of Israel in the context of the Gaza flotilla attack certainly strengthens Obama’s hand with Netanyahu: it is impossible for the Israelis not to recognize that without American resistance to a broad-ranging international investigation into the bloody incident, Israel would’ve faced a virtually united international community insisting on a second Goldstone report, but with more teeth. Instead, Israel is conducting its own, thus far deeply flawed, investigations, but American pressure is allowing that to continue. Any sense that Israel is in a position to go it alone, snub the United States or act as if it were a superpower rather than the ally and client of a superpower has to have been most rudely disabused by this entire experience. Moreover, Netanyahu is not going to be able to triangulate between expectations from the White House based on American national security priorities on the one hand and the hard-line positions of most of his Cabinet colleagues on the other, as he rather skillfully did for a number of months. Those days are over. The bottom line is this: atypically adroit Palestinian diplomacy has placed Netanyahu in a position in which if he shows up at the White House tomorrow empty handed or without satisfactory answers to some of the blunt questions he is likely to receive, he may soon find himself reliving political experiences from the late 1990s (“Wye oh Wye, Delilah,” if you know what I mean) which he probably thought, and certainly hoped, could never recur.