Progress toward peace requires public diplomacy, not threats
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Getting the Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table wasn’t easy, and keeping them there is proving a challenge for a very determined Secretary of State John Kerry. His greatest worry has to be that both sides may be looking for an excuse to take a walk.
That may have been part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to announce he was calling off the fourth session of secret talks that were scheduled for Aug. 26 in Jericho. His excuse was the violent clash in the Kalandiya refugee camp near Ramallah earlier that day that left three Palestinians dead when a large crowd attacked Israeli soldiers who had gone in to arrest a suspected terrorist.
But Abbas may have had something else in mind. Instead of saying such encounters demonstrate the need for a peace pact, he went in the opposite direction, escalating threats against Israel and using the incident to press his demand for direct American intervention in the talks.
His spokesman repeated old threats to file charges of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide and other offenses in the World Court and various other international agencies in response to the Kalandiya incident and continued settlement construction. That doesn’t sound like a confidence-building measure by one who says he wants a peaceful end to the conflict.
Abbas has to decide whether he wants to poison the well or make peace. He can’t have it both ways.
Similarly, in the eyes of many, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expanded settlement construction is also poison in the well.
It would appear that the last thing the Palestinians want is to be alone in the room with the Israelis. And the last thing Netanyahu wants is to have the Americans at the table, where he fears he could be outnumbered.
The Palestinian leadership is accusing the United States of not taking the talks seriously enough. But what Abbas really wants is for the United States to be his negotiator. In fact, he’d like to internationalize the talks, bringing in not only the Americans, but the Europeans, the United Nations and the Russians.
That’s not only because he is confident that America’s vision of what a final agreement should look like is much closer to his than to Netanyahu’s, but also because to make peace he knows he will have to make some difficult compromises. He’d rather make any needed concessions to the Americans than to the Israelis. That would also be much easier to sell at home.
What Abbas chooses to ignore is that all of Israel’s historic breakthroughs with the Arabs — peace with Egypt and Jordan and the Oslo accords with the Palestinians — were achieved through direct negotiations between the parties themselves, free of any U.S. involvement. Washington was only brought in as the closer, and that’s the way it should be.
Also this week, Abbas broke Kerry’s gag rule on the talks by complaining to visitors that no progress had been made in the first three sessions because of Israeli foot-dragging.
Kerry has insisted — until now successfully — that what happens in the room stays in the room. He was to be the only one authorized to speak publicly — in his view, the less that leaked out, the greater the chances for success.
Abbas’ leak may be part of his strategy to raise the pressure on Washington and Jerusalem. It came in a meeting last week with leftist Israeli Knesset members in which he complained that the Israelis are stalling. If it were up to him they’d be meeting every day or two instead of every week or 10 days, he said.
His interview also serves a worthy purpose that Netanyahu could do well to emulate: public diplomacy. Abbas began with a group of Israeli lawmakers, mostly from the Meretz party, and ministers who support the two-state approach, and he was expected to expand that this week by inviting members of the Knesset’s Caucus on Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict to Ramallah to toast Rosh Hashanah.
It was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s public diplomacy in November 1977 that changed the Middle East; there may be no Sadats today, but even lesser men like Netanyahu and Abbas can reach out across borders and speak directly to the people.
Abbas spoke to his Israeli visitors about border adjustments, an end to the conflict, a demilitarized state, no more territorial claims to Yafo, Akko, Tsfat and Haifa or other places inside Israel — which sounded like dropping the right of return demand for refugees. It was all reported in the Israeli media, which many Palestinians see, but they need to hear these things directly so they know it is not just for foreign consumption.
He has said he is willing to meet with Netanyahu. Rather than another photo-op, the cause of peace would be better served by each inviting the other to his capital to speak of his vision for peace.
It is time for both leaders to speak frankly to their own people and to their neighbors about the compromises ahead, and how neither can have everything they want or have been promised. There will be compromises on borders, refugees, security and Jerusalem. It makes no sense to persist with maximalist demands unless you’re making a case against peace. It’s time to stop making threats and questioning the other side’s motives. Leadership means leading, not kvetching.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist and a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.
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