Mideast Peace Talks Going Nowhere
Poor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas! He returned to Palestine empty-handed and politically weakened after the tripartite summit this week with President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The New York summit yielded no signs of a breakthrough either on freezing construction of Jewish settlements or restarting the long-stalled Palestinian-Israeli talks.
By laying equal blame on the Palestinians and Israelis for the diplomatic stalemate, Obama undermined Abbas’ position at home and exposed his weakness and overdependence on the Americans.
It is important to understand the context of Abbas’ initial reluctance to attend the tripartite summit in New York. He swallowed his pride and accepted Obama’s invitation to meet with Netanyahu, even though he had set a precondition of a settlement freeze, as the U.S. demanded, before agreeing to meet Netanyahu.
Abbas could not say no to Obama in whom the Palestinian Authority has invested its hopes to bring about an independent state. The Palestinian president also feared the Israelis would blame him, as they have already done, for failure to restart the long-stalled Middle East peace talks.
Ignoring calls by Hamas and other Palestinian leaders to stay at home, Abbas attended the summit at a considerable political risk to himself and the PA at home. By rescinding the precondition to freeze settlement building and by gaining nothing in return, the already unpopular Palestinian president risks undermining his legitimacy and authority in the eyes of his people.
Before Abbas returned home, he faced mounting pressure and widespread criticism among Palestinians and Arabs in general. Swiftly capitalizing on the lack of progress in the New York summit, Hamas severely criticized its bitter rival, Abbas, for his “submission to the Zionists” and “retreats” from his previous stance.
Hamas spokesperson Sami Abou Zahri told reporters that Obama’s statements after the meeting show the utter failure of the peace process and a “big retreat” of U.S. commitments to the Palestinians — meaning that America no longer demands an immediate and complete freeze on the building of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
The Hamas spokesman accused Obama of seeking to make Palestinians live with Israeli military occupation and called on Palestinians and Arabs to reject America’s pressure and to entertain no illusions about the U.S. role. Hamas’ stance was echoed by many opinion makers in Palestine and the larger Arab world.
To blunt Hamas’ message upon his return home, Abbas told the Arabic newspaper, Al-Hayat, that Netanyahu’s government is a “real problem,” and there is no common ground for negotiations between the two leaders.
There is no doubt that Abbas gained the least and lost the most in terms of political capital at home. The unpopular Palestinian president finds himself between a rock — Netanyahu — and a hard place — rival Hamas.
The Israeli prime minister has not only refused to freeze settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem but has also insisted on holding peace talks with the Palestinians without agreeing to deal with the key issues of Jerusalem and refugees.
While after the summit Netanyahu told reporters there had been “general agreement that the peace process should resume as soon as possible with no preconditions,” that frees his hand to continue to build new settlements. That is a nonstarter negotiation position for any Palestinian, including Abbas who, before Obama’s invitation, said that Netanyahu’s stance means the end of the peace process.
Even if Netanyahu agrees, as he stated after the summit, that peace talks should resume as soon as possible with no preconditions, he vehemently opposes the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s governing coalition is more right-wing and pro-settlement than he is. Neither Abbas nor any Palestinian leader would accept Netanyahu’s blueprint for peace talks. Nevertheless, Netanyahu gained the most by defying the U.S. president on the question of settlements and forced Abbas to rescind his precondition.
Abbas’ hands are also tied by the intra-Palestinian rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has publicly stressed that Abbas does not speak for or represent the Palestinians and cannot sign any peace agreement without a public mandate. In the last election, Hamas won a comfortable parliamentary majority and trumped Fatah.
Although in the past year Abbas’s public approval ratings have slightly improved because of Hamas’ military blunders and political recklessness, his margin of maneuver is very limited and cannot afford to squander the meager political capital he has recently accumulated.
There is real danger that his first meeting with Netanyahu in New York amounted to a political suicide, and that Hamas will likely reap the fruits, though bitter, from the failed summit.
The most important challenge facing the Palestinians is to put their house in order, to stop the internal bleeding that has plunged Fatah and Hamas to the brink of civil war, and construct a comprehensive negotiating strategy.
Given Abbas’ strategic predicament between Israel and Hamas, it is no wonder that he put all his eggs in Obama’s basket. He set a precondition of a settlement freeze because he followed America’s lead and expected the U.S. president to deliver: Force Netanyahu to stop the construction of new settlements. Abbas’ Arab allies — the Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians — also believed that Obama’s magical wand would do the trick.
Well, Obama means well. He told the General Assembly, “The time has come — the time has come to relaunch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues, security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees and Jerusalem.”
For now, though, Netanyahu has won the first round. The U.S. president has failed to force Israel to agree to a complete settlement freeze and seems unwilling to confront Netanyahu publicly. That is not surprising given that Obama’s domestic and foreign policy agenda is full and complex. His plate is not only full but overflowing.
At this moment Obama is not in position to invest real political capital in pushing for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement. That would require time, energy and precious political resources that are in short supply for the new U.S. administration. The future of this presidency will depend on passing health care reform, not achieving a breakthrough between Palestinians and Israel (no matter how desirable it is), Obama’s advisers caution him.
Bluntly put, Arab-Israeli peace talks are not top priority — like Afghanistan and Pakistan — on Obama’s foreign policy agenda. The Obama team stresses that the president is ready to be patient and stay engaged in the peace process. What patience means is: Do not hold your breath for a breakthrough. The process of restarting the talks, let alone conducting negotiations, is expected to be lengthy, grueling and frustrating.
Fawaz A Gerges is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, London University. Among his books are America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? (Cambridge University Press, 1999), Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy (Harcourt Press, 2006), and The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
The following article also appeared on CNN on September 25, 2009.