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THE WEEK AHEAD: DIRECT MIDEAST PEACE TALKS MAY BREAK DOWN AS THE PALESTINIANS APPEAR POISED TO MISS YET ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY

Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians could break down entirely this week. The Palestinians say they won’t come back to the negotiating table unless the Israelis agree to a new two-month (minimum) freeze on building in Jerusalem and Judea & Samaria (commonly known as the West Bank). The Palestinian leadership has been emboldened by the enormous pressure the Obama administration has been putting on Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to cease building so the peace talks can continue. Netanyahu will meet with his Cabinet on Sunday and they may make a decision then. But many of Netanyahu’s coalition allies reject a longer freeze. They say enough is enough. They’ve made concessions and the Palestinians aren’t reciprocating.

Let’s recap what’s happened so far:

  1. Israelis and Palestinians have been engaged in direct peace talks on and off for well over a decade.
  2. The issue of Israel building in the so-called “settlements” was never a deal-breaker for the Palestinians before.
  3. It became a deal-breaker after President Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 when he stated: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace.  It is time for these settlements to stop.” 
  4. Once the President made this a big deal (it really hadn’t ever been one before), the Palestinians decided to dig in their heels and wait for the President to force Israel to stop building.
  5. Many in Netanyahu’s government insisted Israel keep building, no matter what. But Netanyahu made a bold decision: Israel would halt such controversial building for 10 months so that the Palestinians could come to the table and begin direct peace talks.
  6. Moreover, Netanyahu has ordered hundreds of roadblocks and barricades in the West Bank to be removed. This has allowed more freedom of movement for Palestinians workers and goods. The result: the Palestinian economy grew 6.8% in 2009, and a top Palestinian officials says their economy could be growing at 15% to 20% a year if there was peace.
  7. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu’s decision “unprecedented” and urged the Palestinians to get started with the peace talks.
  8. The Palestinians, however, let the clock nearly run out. Eight months into the 10-month freeze, the Palestinians finally came to the table. Then the clock did run out. Now they are demanding more time.
  9. Would more time really help? Or is this the diplomatic equivalent of Lucy with the football, always pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown at the last moment to make Charlie Brown look foolish?
  10. The core problem here is that the Obama administration is putting enormous and undue pressure on the Israelis, rather than the Palestinians. Yet it is the Israelis who have been most accomodating to get direct peace talks going. Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) seems to be operating in bad faith. Yet President Obama refuses to confront Abu Mazen and insist that he come back to the negotiating table with no pre-conditions.
  11. Netanyahu says he is ready to make a deal. Many of his center-right allies fear he’s serious. The Palestinians will never know unless they come back to the table and negotiate in good faith.

 The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl puts his finger precisely on the problem:  “The main reason, in my view, is that the Obama administration has once again chosen to ask Netanyahu for an unnecessary concession — and one he may be unable to deliver.”

Diehl adds: “Netanyahu finds himself in a familiar bind. When he last led an Israeli government, in the late 1990s, he also came under crushing U.S. pressure to make concessions in an earlier round of peace talks. When he did so, his right-wing allies deserted him, while Israel’s left-wing parties refused to support him. His government fell, and he lost the subsequent election. The same fate could befall Netanyahu if he accepts Obama’s offer. Right-wing parties in his coalition could turn against him — and the largest center-left opposition party is signaling that it will not back up the prime minister even though it supports the settlement moratorium. So the prime minister is unlikely to accept the deal with the U.S. unless he can persuade his coalition partners to go along. At the same time, Netanyahu knows that if he rejects the deal, he will anger Obama — who hasn’t shied from open confrontations with Israel over settlements. Obama isn’t likely to turn on Netanyahu before the U.S. midterm elections; but a breakdown in the peace process could seriously complicate relations between the two countries next year, when Israel hopes the United States will act decisively to stop Iran’s nuclear program.”

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