March 30, 2010
How Abbas Bamboozled Bibi
A lot of people are wondering how Israel got into such a mess. How could Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make one concession after another before negotiations even start — while the other side makes none — and still, none of it is enough to please the United States or simply get to the negotiating table?
About a year ago, a few weeks after being elected, Netanyahu offered to immediately begin peace negotiations with the Palestinians, without preconditions. You would think that would shift the pressure to the other side to come to the table, and ease the pressure on Israel. Instead, the exact opposite happened — the pressure on Israel has been unrelenting.
It started when the Palestinians balked at coming to the table. To entice them and show the Arab world it could be tough with Israel, the Obama administration pressured Bibi to make two major concessions: recognize the two-state solution and freeze all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Bibi swallowed hard and did the first, with caveats, but he couldn’t do the second. A total construction freeze for 300,000 Jews was not realistic. Many months were spent with the Americans haggling over a compromise, which was finally reached with the announcement of a 10-month limited freeze in all areas except Jerusalem.
Although the Palestinians initially balked, insisting on a total freeze, they grudgingly agreed to indirect “proximity talks.” But those were jeopardized by the Ramat Shlomo announcement during Joe Biden’s visit.
The Palestinians used the announcement as an excuse to back out of the proximity talks — even though a Jerusalem freeze was never part of the agreed conditions for the talks. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, seeing the Palestinians walking away, doubled down and imposed a slew of new demands on Israel, such as: a freeze in East Jerusalem, goodwill gestures to the Palestinians and an agreement to address all final issues during the talks.
These demands — before negotiations even start — are highly problematic for Israel, especially the construction freeze in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, something that has little support in Israel. Bibi is now struggling mightily to find a way to contain Obama’s pressure without committing political suicide.
Like I said, a real mess. Instead of negotiating with the Palestinians, Israel finds itself in a diplomatic tug of war with its best friend.
How could this have happened? How could the party that’s making the concessions be the party that’s taking so much heat? How could a smart guy like Bibi get bamboozled?
Here’s what I think: Bibi forgot that in any negotiation, the most fundamental concession you can offer is your willingness to show up. By holding on to that concession, Mahmoud Abbas gave it the value of gold. By giving it away for free, Bibi made it worthless and opened the floodgates to other concessions.
Knowing there was a new sheriff in town — Obama — who was already suspicious of his intentions, Bibi should have been especially careful not to throw away the “showing up” card. Instead of showing eagerness that wouldn’t be trusted, he should have shocked Obama with candor and pessimism. In other words, he should have taken a page out of Abbas’ playbook — put on a grim face and play hard to get.
In the Middle East, the party who looks optimistic is the party who looks guilty. Bibi’s body language is that of the can-do, macho Israeli with the perfect American accent and the confident posture — someone you hold responsible if something goes wrong. Contrast that with the body language of Abbas: always the aggrieved party, always reluctant to move forward, always grim and pessimistic.
Had Bibi curbed his enthusiasm, the focus would have been on how to get Israel to the table, rather than how to squeeze Israel to get the Palestinians to the table.
Now look at how far things have unraveled. While Israel is tied up in knots trying to please America, the Palestinians are so relaxed that, as The New York Times reports, “Mahmoud Abbas will decide whether he is willing to go through with the proximity talks after he receives a report from the White House.” This is the same White House that Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post said treated Bibi “as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator.”
The mess is hardly all Bibi’s fault. There are things no one can control, like the least friendly U.S. administration in decades. Still, I wish Bibi would have channeled his inner Menachem Begin and said something like:
“Israel wants peace, but we are pessimistic about the prospects for peace. The Palestinians are bitterly divided into two entities, one of which, Hamas, is sworn to our destruction. The Palestinian Authority, by maligning Israel at every turn and continuing its incitement to Jew-hatred and glorifying of terrorism, hasn’t shown a willingness to make peace. Their refusal even to make a counteroffer to my predecessor’s generous offer of a Palestinian state is strong evidence of that. Until we get a written pledge that the Palestinians will provide counteroffers and not just rejections, and stop inciting Jew-hatred, Israel will not engage in negotiations that will only raise false hopes and build even more cynicism toward the peace process.”
Would things be worse than they are now?