Arafat – yes, Arafat – conducted intensive negotiations with Netanyahu during the latter’s first term in office. Mahmoud Abbas was happy to talk to Ariel Sharon. However, a while after Netanyahu had been sworn-in as Israel’s prime minister for the second time, in April of last year, the Palestinian leadership is coming up with constant excuses in order to avoid significant dialogue with Israel.
The difficulty to explain the current Palestinian position has reached all the way to the White House. Those who carefully read the full Obama interview with Time Magazine realize that he has lost patience with the Palestinians’ elusive conduct. Officials around Obama have spoken harshly: They charged that the Palestinians humiliated the president and screwed up his policy.
What prompts the Palestinian leadership to adopt such stubborn refusal and shun the initiative of a US Administration that may be the most convenient for them? The Palestinians do not wish to negotiate with Netanyahu because they perceive him as a practical politician seeking practical solutions; this is the kind of mess the current Palestinian leadership wishes to stay away from. It doesn’t even want to get close to it.
Palestinian leaders did not mind talks with former PM Olmert, because they knew he had no mandate to finalize any deal, and certainly not a “final-status agreement” which the talks focused on. They in fact liked the futile talks and arguments. Yet when the possibility of a practical agreement first came up and they had to respond to it, they left the talks and did not return.
In the backdrop to the talks with Olmert and Livni was the Bush Administration, which the entire Arab world loved to hate, and whose involvement could be used to explain the failure. Yet with Obama and Bibi negotiations can take a different path. Both of them are politicians who seek results and who are unwilling to waste time on verbal and ideological quarrels.
Palestinian consensus of refusal
Netanyahu, with Washington’s support, therefore offers the Palestinians two parallel tracks. One track will see endless negotiations on a “final-status agreement” where each side will be presenting its version of absolute justice. The second track of dialogue will be practical, closely linked to reality, and brief; it will conclude with the Palestinian Authority being upgraded to the status of state, or at least “state in progress.”
Yet this is precisely what the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank wishes to avoid like the plague.
“We won’t be signing yet another interim agreement with Israel,” a very senior Palestinian figure says in closed-door sessions. “Ever since the Camp David talks, no agreements have been signed with Israel, and the Abbas government will not breach the Palestinian consensus of refusal. We also don’t wish to get our ‘state in progress’ from Israel. We already have it. We got it on our own.”
“The current situation serves us well. Palestine is growing, the security situation is decent, Hamas is under siege in Gaza, and global public opinion endorses us and opposes the occupation. There is no rush for us. The demographic clock is ticking and the option of a bi-national state is being realized. We have no incentive for entering talks with an Israeli prime minister who wants to get down to business, that is, who wants to show results.”
This then is the absurdity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2010. The Palestinians are willing to engage in vague negotiations with the Netanyahu government while knowing in advance that this will not lead to any results, but are unwilling to embark on practical talks as long as there is a chance that this will lead to results on the ground. They fear a situation whereby they will be asked to reject or accept a viable interim agreement, which includes the evacuation of some settlements and the transfer of more land to their control.
The Palestinians are shunning Bibi, because in their view he is a serious statesman.