It’s an old joke with a not-so-funny punch line: the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Sadly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is giving new credence to the cliché as he is pressed from all sides to begin direct peace talks with Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he wants them, and he has convinced President Barack Obama that face-to-face negotiations are preferable to the unproductive, indirect “proximity talks” now underway under the auspices of U.S. envoy George Mitchell.
Critics say Netanyahu’s stance may be a bluff by a prime minister who doesn’t think the time is right for any real negotiations, but that’s almost beside the point. It’s hard to argue with his contention that only direct talks between the parties, with Washington playing a supportive but not dominating role, can break through the lengthy Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
As he has done so many times in the past, a timid, shortsighted Abbas is waiting for the U.S. administration to force Israel to make concessions, which he says are necessary to instill confidence among the Palestinian people, without doing much of anything to bolster the confidence of wary Israelis.
Abbas has refused to stop the incitement in the schools and media; he has offered no constructive solutions to the huge problems posed by Hamas control of Gaza. His entire strategy seems to be set new preconditions for direct talks and try to shift the blame for the ongoing stalemate to Netanyahu.
Fortunately, the Obama administration seems to see through this irresponsible, unhelpful strategy. On Monday a White House spokesman, with Abbas clearly in mind, warned that “there are consequences to failing to take advantage” of the opportunities opened by Netanyahu’s call for direct talks.
There are reports the Arab League — generally not a helpful presence in the quest for peace — is pressing Abbas to move quickly into direct negotiations. So are Jordan and Egypt.
Abbas would be wise to listen to all this advice. Only direct talks with Israel, with both sides ready and willing to make the tough decisions real progress will require, can lead to the Palestinian state he claims is his No. 1 goal. Further delay will do nothing to help his cause — and may well result in new armed conflict that the Palestinians cannot hope to win.