Whether or not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a strategic vision for peace I'll leave to the experts in the mysteries of Israeli politics. One thing I can say with confidence: in the day-to-day diplomatic trench warfare with Palestinian leaders, he looks like a genius.
The latest example: his ongoing call for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, which has now become a refrain of the Obama administration.
I don't believe for a minute Netanyahu wants direct talks that delve into critical final status issues like refugees and Jerusalem; either he never wants that to happen, or he thinks Israel still lacks a credible Palestinian partner for such weighty negotiations at this time. You pick.
But advocating direct talks in the face of the Palestinian insistence on indirect “proximity” talks that are almost guaranteed to go nowhere makes Bibi look like the guy who wants to move this peace process forward and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas like the foot dragger.
So what does Abbas do? He digs in his heels and says no direct talks until Israel stops all settlement activity.
I also don't believe for a minute Abbas wants serious negotiations; he'd rather sit back and wait, almost certainly futilely, for America to push Israel into making deep concessions without having to do anything on his own, like stopping incitement. Or he just doesn't trust Netanyahu to be a viable negotiating partner. You pick
Still, the smart thing for him to have done would have been to say “great, direct talks, let's start tomorrow, and let's talk about Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, water....”
Then Netanyahu would have had to come up with some good explanations for why he said he wanted direct talks, but what he meant was direct talks that avoid the core issues of the conflict – which is to say, not real negotiations at all.
Instead, Abbas managed to make Netanyahu look like the guy who wants peace talks while he just wants...who knows what he wants?
Sometimes I wonder if the Obama administration grasps this fact: both Abbas and Netanyahu want peace in some abstract sense and both may have a vague understanding that eventually there will have to be compromises – but neither is anywhere close to accepting the big political risks that will inevitably result from such compromises.
Maybe each has good reasons for that reluctance, maybe it's that both are purely political creatures more interested in their own political survival than in moving toward peace or maybe both secretly cling to maximalist fantasies about the region's future. You pick.
But I suspect it's the governing reality in the region. Maybe the Obama is finally starting to realize that and is backing off from an enterprise that is almost certainly on the fast track to nowhere. Meanwhile, score one for Bibi and a big goose egg for Abbas, at least in the short-term maneuvering that passes for vision and strategy in the Middle East.
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