The conventional wisdom was that if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed the 10-month moratorium on Jewish construction in the West Bank to expire, he would be blamed widely for causing the newly restarted Mideast peace talks to collapse.
So far, though, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has not walked away, as he’d threatened. And perhaps more surprising, the onus seems to be shifting to the Palestinians to keep negotiating rather than using one issue — the settlements — as an excuse to let what may well be the last chance for an agreement to be lost.
This week 87 U.S. senators signed on to a letter urging President Barack Obama to put public pressure on Abbas to continue to negotiate with Israel. Until now, Obama was putting public pressure on Israel to extend the moratorium. Netanyahu should not be faulted for keeping his end of the bargain. He had promised, reluctantly in light of his right-wing coalition, to stop construction, noting at the time that it was “a one-time decision” and “temporary,” and he kept his word. The Palestinians, though, chose to squander almost all of those 10 months and only at the end of that time agreed to direct talks; they had been perfectly happy to let the U.S. do their insisting for them.
Obama’s first and major mistake in addressing the Israel-Palestinian problem last year was to focus almost exclusively on the settlement issue and, in calling for a settlement freeze, neglecting to define “settlement” or “freeze.”
He should know the difference between tiny outposts and key, historic communities near Jerusalem that will remain part of Israel in whatever agreement is ultimately hammered out. And there is a very real difference between allowing the completion of limited projects and launching new ones.
Perhaps the White House will take a look now at the bigger picture in terms of obstacles to the peace talks, most notably the ongoing incitement against Jews and Israel within the West Bank, and the continued insistence by Abbas on the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees (now estimated at over 4 million) to Israel. It was Abbas who walked away from a most generous offer by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, an offer that would have given the Palestinians a state with almost the entire amount of territory of the pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza, and half of Jerusalem. But Olmert refused the “right of return,” recognizing it would spell the end of the Jewish state; Abbas never came back with a counterproposal.
The PA president is back at the table, finally — at least for the moment. Unless he agrees to continue negotiations in the spirit of compromise, the notion that the Palestinians prefer their current status as victim to having a state of their own will be hard to discount or dismiss.