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Abbas’ gift to Netanyahu

The Palestinian refusal to return to the negotiating table with Israel to discuss a permanent solution to the conflict has freed Israel of its debt to the Americans for their recognition of Jerusalem.

The reactions of the Palestinian leadership to US President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel should be accorded a prominent place in a Diplomacy 101 textbook under the heading “How NOT to Manage a Conflict.” The first rule of thumb is that the weaker side, in this case the Palestinians, should never fall out with the mediator, especially if he happens to be the leader of a superpower with the ego of a superhero. The second rule is to never climb a tree unless you have a ladder on which to climb down. And the third: Never miss an opportunity to expose your opponent’s cards when you’re certain he’s bluffing. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas violated all three of these injunctions.

Following the Jerusalem proclamation and Trump’s Jan. 25 declaration that “we took Jerusalem off the table,” Abbas declared a diplomatic war on the mediator. All that was left for Abbas as consolation was an expected vote by the Slovenian parliament recognizing the State of Palestine. Responding to Trump, Abbas sent spokesman Nabil Abu Rodeina to issue the threat: “If Jerusalem is off the table, then the US will be off the table as well.” As a result, the Palestinians will continue to walk tall — under the table. They can declare, as Abu Rodeina did, that Jerusalem is an issue that “is not for sale, neither for gold nor for silver.” Meanwhile, the Israeli government will invest a fortune in its West Bank settlement enterprise, and the international community will keep financing the Palestinian security agencies. In fact, by doing so, the international community pays for the security of Israeli citizens, as the Palestinian agencies help thwart terror attacks on Israelis.

The Trump administration handed Abbas several ladders on which to climb down from his Jerusalem tree. Vice President Mike Pence used the Knesset podium on Jan. 22 to clarify that the borders of Jerusalem would be determined in negotiations between the sides. Trump’s envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said Jan. 30 at a conference held by the Institute for National Security Studies that the presidential declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital does not predetermine the extent of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. He explained that Trump’s declaration was simply a recognition of the fact that Jerusalem was the seat of Israel’s government and parliament and had been the spiritual center of the Jewish people for millennia.

At the start of his term, during a joint White House news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2017, Trump said that both Israelis and Palestinians would have to make concessions. “You know that, right?” he asked, looking at his guest. “The Israelis are going to have to show some flexibility. … And I think they’ll do that. I think they very much would like to make a deal.”

In his speech to the Knesset, which had Trump’s blessing, Pence pledged that the United States would ensure that any peace plan safeguards Israel’s security, but added that his country also understands that peace would require concessions on Israel’s part. He noted that Israel had in the past made tough decisions — an apparent reference to its ceding of the Sinai Peninsula in return for the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt — in order to make peace with its neighbors. “Tough decisions” is synonymous with “territorial compromises.”

As I wrote in Al-Monitor on Jan. 25, the Palestinian reactions to the Jerusalem declaration reflect their fury at the plan being formulated by the White House for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the blueprint, which has yet to be unveiled, imposes far-reaching concessions to Israel on the part of the Palestinians. The White House responded that the peace plan was still being drafted and promised it would “benefit” both sides. Since the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord in 1993, no one has come up with a plan that benefits both sides, is acceptable to both and does, not require Israel to give up territory.

Responding to the crisis with the Palestinians over the Jerusalem proclamation, Trump tweeted on Jan. 3, “We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more.” His comment implied that the Palestinian refusal to return to the negotiating table with Israel to discuss a permanent solution to the conflict had freed Israel of its debt to the Americans for their recognition of Jerusalem.

It has been almost nine years since Netanyahu’s landmark Bar-Ilan University speech — the last time he publicly offered to pay for an agreement with the Palestinians. To date, he has not dared put the two-state principle he described in 2009 to a domestic political test. The various proposals his current government is promoting to annex Palestinian territories do not leave any room for territorial concessions. On Dec. 31, the ministers and Knesset members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party stood before the party’s central decision-making body and competed to see who could shout loudest in favor of imposing Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. The current ruling coalition cannot even survive a decision to temporarily freeze construction in the settlements and to uproot a single, illegal settlement outpost.

Abbas extricated Netanyahu from the spot he hates most — between the American rock and the settlers’ hard place. He freed Netanyahu of the need to decide which is the lesser of two evils — adopting an American peace proposal, which would lead to the dismantling of his right-wing government and a Likud leadership crisis, or rejecting the American proposal, which would lead to the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority and a crisis in relations with the United States. Netanyahu can now celebrate yet another (pyrrhic) victory. In the long run, once the Israeli occupation morphs into a full state of apartheid, Israelis are the ones who will be stuck with the unbearably heavy moral, diplomatic, economic and security bill. In that case, the Israelis may be more in need of a lesson in diplomacy than the Palestinians.

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