For every bet there are two people, the old saying goes, the crook and the idiot. This is apparently as true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it is of everything else. The (only) good news is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not stupid.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House on Monday evening, for a meeting that was supposed to summarize nine months of negotiations. And the situation is bleak, albeit not entirely disheartening. For while there is at present no framework for an agreement, nor agreement for a framework, the sole saving grace is that the two sides are willing to keep talking. There might be a small concession here, a small concession there, but the primary objective seems to be not to take the plunge.
- Abbas will press Obama on settlement freeze, prisoners
- 'Abbas is a true partner for peace,' says Peres
- Fatah backs Abbas: No recognition of Jewish state
So this is what Secretary of State John Kerry has achieved in nine months of hard work by him and his massive team. Nine months of gestation. Indeed, there was a baby bump, there were contractions, there was even morning sickness. But only the parents knew that this was a phantom pregnancy.
Going on past experience, the two sides will now revert to playing two games at the same time: The blame game and the stalling game. In the latter, Abbas will threaten to go to various UN agencies to get recognition for his state; at the same time, the legal framework in which the occupation operates will disintegrate; Israel will fall foul, and the US will be embarrassed.
Kerry wants both sides to tone it down. Abbas is coming out with conditions, such as a settlement freeze. Kerry is pressuring Netanyahu to respond, but Netanyahu says it's not easy for him, he is being squeezed by the right. In the meantime, he is buying time.
In the blame game, each side is trying to pin the failure of the negotiations on the other: "I wanted an agreement - it's him who didn't." It's a seemingly simple game, but it has a great twist: On each side has politicians who actively want their own leaders to take the blame, thereby making themselves seem more determined, more macho and more ideological in the eyes of their electorate. Moshe Ya'alon is one name that springs to mind. Don't blame only Abbas, he effectively said on Israel's "Meet the Press" show on Saturday night.
Similar voices can be heard on the Palestinian side. No one is going to deny any headlines-hungry politician the right to say no, nor is anyone going to deny Netanyahu that same right.
The prime minister's basic formula in any negotiations has been to say, "Yes, but…" Only now he's saying "Yes, but… No".
When he was in the US, the emphasis was on the "Yes"; now he's back in Israel, the emphasis on the "No". But both over here and over there, he never forgets the "but".
The debate is now focused on Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state, and Abbas' refusal to comply. The history of the demand is well-known: Tzipi Livni came up with it in the Sharon-era, as a symbolic step that would accompany the signing of a final agreement. Sharon did not give it any importance - he believed in unilateral measures, not agreements, and was more concerned with what the Americans were suggesting, not the Palestinians.
But Netanyahu saw its potential. As we have said, he is far from stupid. He moved the demand from the final stages to the earlier ones, and made it a red line, a deal breaker. At some point, he even convinced Kerry.
Abbas could have said, "No problem, my friends. Yasser Arafat himself recognized the Jewish state; I will follow my mentor's lead." But he didn’t. He behaved like a Middle Eastern ruler, saying no straight off, and fell into a trap. The Israeli right has enthusiastically adopted Netanyahu's demand, and Abbas' right flank has no less enthusiastically taken up his refusal.
These are the emperor's new clothes that Netanyahu has sewn for Abbas, and it is no wonder, therefore, that the Palestinian leader has arrived naked to Washington.
On the Tel Aviv boardwalk, there sits a multi-talented man. He has three cups and a die, which he skillfully switches from cup to cup. The audience is invited to guess which cup the die is under. Usually they are wrong.
It's a pleasure to watch him work: His hands are busy, his face gives nothing away, his eyes constantly searching for passing policemen. What can you say? The man's a pro. If you had been there, you too would have been impressed. But would you want a man like this to decide on the fate of future generations? I'm not so sure.