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Mideast Political Uncertainty Stymies Peace Process

BY Robert Zeliger  November 13, 2009 at 5:30 PM EST

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo by Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s first call made as president to a foreign leader went to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He told the beleaguered leader that he was firmly committed to working for Middle East peace, and that he saw Abbas as his partner.

In late October, nine months after that call, Mr. Obama and Abbas spoke again by telephone. President Obama urged Abbas to return to negotiations with the Israelis and drop his preconditions that Israel freeze settlements, according to Palestinians with knowledge of the conversation. Abbas said he’d rather resign than go to negotiations without a full settlement freeze by the Israelis.

Abbas has since said publicly that he would not run again in Palestinian elections set for next year. And people around him have hinted to the press that he may resign much sooner.

“He is more likely [to] resign now than he was a week ago,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and a close adviser to Abbas. On Thursday, the Palestinian Central Electoral Commission advised Abbas to postpone elections, set for January, until June because Hamas officials in Gaza had warned they would not allow the vote to go forward. Erekat said that probably means there will never be elections, since Hamas will continue blocking them, and Abbas doesn’t see the point of staying on when negotiations seem to be back at square one, with Israel refusing to comply with its obligations to stop settlements.

Israel has a different take on the matter. The United States seemed to have reached a tacit understanding with the Israeli government over the summer, according to David Makovsky, the author of “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.” That understanding meant Israel would not have to agree to a complete settlement freeze, as the U.S. first insisted. Instead Israel would be able finish construction on some 2,500 housing units already being built. The understanding did not cover East Jerusalem.

“The Americans have told us that’s the best we can get from [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” Erekat said. He added that American officials have told him that while they consider settlements to be illegitimate, they “tried their best” to get more from the Israelis.

The White House said its position on settlements is unchanged.

“We don’t accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman. “The Israelis have responded to our call to stop settlement activity by expressing a willingness to significantly curtail settlement activity. While it falls short of our request, if acted upon, it would have a meaningful and significant effect on the ground.”

What happened between the first and second phone call between Presidents Obama and Abbas has been hotly debated by Middle East analysts. For some, the U.S. president, with other foreign policy challenges on his plate, simply let the Middle East issue slide. Some see a lack of backbone to pressure Israel’s rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement a settlement freeze. Others see a president who has not done enough to reach out to both sides in the conflict — Arab and Israeli — or whose foreign policy naivety led him to push too hard, too fast for a solution. And some say Mr. Obama did everything he should have, but was ultimately dealing with regional realities that are stronger than anything any American president can change.

Regardless, few deny that chances for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are further away than at any time in the last two decades.

“What’s been tried over the last 16 years has failed,” said Robert Malley, the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. “It’s not a matter of doing it better or having a better president, we’re seeing that there is something fundamentally wrong with the process itself.”

Malley said the upside to all this is that it happened so early in Mr. Obama’s presidency and leaves time for the United States to come up with a new strategy.

Fighting so hard over every little detail just to get the two sides talking again, Malley said, is a road to nowhere. “The headache they would have faced far outstripped the potential for success. I don’t believe Abbas and Netanyahu sitting in a room together can do much good anyway.”

What Abbas wants

Whether Abbas has come to the same conclusion is still uncertain. Some skeptics contend his public declaration not to run again was meant only to light a fire under the American administration to ratchet up pressure on the Israelis. One person close to the Palestinian leadership, and who has worked with Abbas in the past, said Abbas is banking on the likelihood that elections won’t happen anytime soon, given the strong division between the Fatah leadership in the West Bank and the Hamas-run government in Gaza. This person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he continues to work occasionally with the Palestinian leader, said Abbas is responding to U.S. pressure to be more flexible with the Israelis and not just say no to negotiations.

“He’s basically saying, if you want to keep me, give me more.”

It’s a strategy that will likely backfire, according to Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the PLO. “If it’s a political move, it’s a bad one,” she said. “Abbas doesn’t seem to understand that the U.S. is not going to sacrifice years of relationship with Israel just for one guy who can be easily replaced.”

Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster and political analyst, said he’s convinced Abbas is serious about his threat to resign.

“He’s concluded that what he’s done the last couple of years in terms of creating stability, services, security, and building institutions of the state and producing calm for the Israelis, all of this is creating an attractive status quo for the Netanyahu government.”

Shikaki said Abbas was “horrified” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments in October, calling the actions of the Netanyahu government to slow down settlement growth — though not freeze it completely — “unprecedented.”

“He therefore wants to rock the boat,” Shikaki continued. “If that means the boat sinks and he sinks with it, that’s certainly a possibility. He hopes, of course, the boat won’t sink.”

Blame to go around?

Abbas has made some major tactical mistakes since the Obama presidency began, some analysts say.

“He’s followed a strategy that hasn’t worked,” said Buttu. “Do what the U.S. tells you to do and hope that eventually it will turn into an Israeli-American confrontation. He doesn’t understand the way the U.S. works.

“It’s naive to put all your eggs in one basket and believe the Americans would liberate Palestine. They won’t.”

Buttu said one of his biggest mistakes was not pushing harder to create a unity government with Hamas, which she believes would have taken some of the pressure off Abbas. “Just as Netanyahu talks about how he needs to keep his coalition intact, Abbas could have said, my hands are tied, I don’t want bloodshed anymore. Ultimately, I don’t think he really read the Obama administration very well. He was very happy with the statements coming out, but didn’t bank on there only being statements.”

Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel until 2005, said the United States made the mistake of going too far out ahead of Abbas when it called for a complete settlement freeze.

“Once we demanded a total settlement freeze without exceptions, Abbas can’t say he will take anything less. We essentially put him on a branch and then sawed it off.”

Kurtzer said he doesn’t think it was necessarily a wrong move to call for the settlement freeze, but the administration seemed to lack the backbone to follow the strategy through to the end.

“If you’re going to say publicly that we want a total freeze, you have to see it through, meaning if you don’t get a settlement freeze you have to be willing to have something like a mini-crisis with Israel. Instead we went into negotiations and Israel kept changing its position. The administration backtracked and wound up saying they appreciated Israel’s restraint.”

Still, others defend America’s effort to prioritize peace efforts.

“They invested in it and explored the best way to go about it,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator who now directs the Middle East Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. “That included an acknowledgement that it’s difficult to have a credible process in parallel to settlement expansion [by the Israelis].”

Support for Netanyahu

While the Palestinian leadership wobbles, Netanyahu seems to be enjoying popular support in Israel. A poll released Friday by the liberal Haaretz newspaper, said the prime minister’s support would increase if new elections were held.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s approval rating is relatively low in Israel and Netanyahu may be gaining support by seeming to stand up to the American president, analysts say.

But poll numbers may be misleading, said analyst Daniel Levy.

“Sure, Netanyahu has in some ways been strengthened. But that doesn’t change the fundamentals,” Levy says. “There is still deep distrust of him [among many Israelis] and he still has a very wobbly and unreliable coalition. What he has managed to do through a campaign that the American administration is now aware of, he has managed to create and play himself against the American president in terms of trying to undermine any attempt for him to talk directly to the Israeli people.”

One former Israeli official, who is close to Netanyahu, says President Obama has undermined his message through clumsy diplomatic initiations that haven’t seemed to go anywhere. “The administration wanted to introduce the idea of a settlement freeze as a quid pro quo for getting Arab governments in the region to give Israel a gesture of goodwill. But they were unable to get anything from [the Arab leaders]. Meanwhile, the Palestinians pick up on the settlement freeze as a precondition for talks, which it never was before. So Israelis see the whole thing as backfiring and they are less likely to give credibility to the American leadership.”

Way forward

Officially, Israel won’t comment on either American policy toward settlements or on what an Abbas resignation would mean. Some Israelis say Abbas has been too passive, relying heavily on America to do the heavy lifting.

Kurtzer, the former American ambassador to Israel, said the situation is at a dangerous point. “The Israel administration believes it has succeeded in winning over Obama on the critical issue of settlements.”

And meanwhile, he said, the Palestinian leadership is in disarray. If Abbas steps down, he may take with him the hopes of solving this crisis through negotiations.

“When it comes to the Book of Oslo, it may be we’re watching not just the end of a chapter, but the end of the book.”

Shikaki, the Palestinian pollster, agrees. “If Abbas decides to resign or not run again, no one will run on the same platform. The platform of negotiations leading to peace will have been discredited. Future leaders will have to say something different about how best to end the occupation.”

But critics of the peace process say this is an opportunity to rethink old assumptions. “We should be less concerned about whether or not Abbas will run again, than what it reflects-that the Palestinians are losing hope in the peace process,” said Malley, the former Middle East adviser to Clinton. “At the end of the day, if the entire process is dependent on the political survival of one man, I think that means it’s too fragile anyway.”