In the minefields of Middle East peace diplomacy, what you see is often not what you get. Over the years both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have become adept at maneuvers that conceal their real goals. The fact is that distinguishing reality from diplomatic and political posturing is difficult in the best of times.
As direct Israel-Palestinian talks under U.S. auspices resumed this week, first in Egypt and then in Jerusalem, one thing was clear: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has maneuvered himself into a corner with statements and positions that suggest he is a reluctant partner for peace, at best, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has positioned himself as the one ready to get down to serious negotiations, with all the risky compromises they entail.
While Netanyahu has spoken in recent days of “historic compromise” and “original thinking,” Abbas, who resisted direct talks and agreed to resume them only after strong U.S. and international pressure, continues to raise objections, set difficult preconditions and threaten to bolt if things don’t go his way. The Israeli leader, like his predecessors, speaks of the willingness to make painful compromises. No talk of compromise is heard from the other side.
Unlike previous negotiations, these are direct, one-on-one talks between the two leaders, so what both men are saying in private may be very different from their public poses. Defenders of Abbas say his public negativity is meant for domestic political consumption, and that may well be the case.
Still, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Netanyahu, whatever his ultimate game plan, is working with the Obama administration to give these new talks a chance. He is the one who has recognized and spoken of the needs of two nations. By contrast, the Palestinian leader seems well on his way to missing yet another opportunity, and in the process undermining confidence in the new negotiations among an understandably wary Israeli public.
If Abbas’ statements do, in fact, reflect a determination to hold out for maximalist positions, they guarantee failure in this last-ditch effort to negotiate creation of the state he claims is his ultimate goal.
The issue of Israel’s about-to-expire moratorium on settlement construction is a thorny one that the two leaders and their American partners will have to address very soon through intensive, creative diplomacy. Otherwise, the talks will fail before they hardly are started. For now, though, Abbas appears to be the reluctant negotiator while Netanyahu is showing the flexibility and commitment required to overcome the obstacles at hand.