Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Obama's Talk with Mahmoud Abbas: A Recital of U.S. Policy

By Barry Rubin

The White House released what it calls a "Readout of the President’s Call with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority" which summarizes President Barack Obama's telephone conversation with Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas. Let's analyze it.

"The President congratulated President Abbas on the start of Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks."

The U.S. government wants to encourage continued talks and to ensure that nothing should interfere with them continuing. These talks are the administration's main (sole?) "achievement" in foreign policy and woe to he--unless "he" is on the Palestinian side--who jeopardized their continuation.

"He reiterated his strong support for the establishment of an independent, viable Palestinian state living in peace and security with Israel."

This is the basic stance of U.S. presidents going back at least to the Oslo agreements of 17 years ago: the Palestinians get a state, Israel gets security, both get peace. In many ways, the Obama Administration has not changed the framework of U.S. policy as it was under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It is the atmospherics that are done quite differently, and often counterproductively.

"The President and President Abbas discussed the need for both parties to negotiate seriously and in good faith, and to move from proximity talks to direct negotiations as soon as possible in order to reach an agreement on permanent status issues."

So the U.S. goal is to get the talks going directly--which is possible--and to obtain a full peace agreement--which isn't. The key question is how much will the Obama administration push in that direction. Will it be satisfied to let the indirect talks go on for many months? I tend to think that the White House isn't going to go all-out for a final-status agreement it knows isn't going to happen. But the effort to make these two transitions--indirect to direct, general talks to negotiations--is going to be the centerpiece of U.S. policy on this issue during the rest of this term.

"The President expressed appreciation for President’s Abbas recent outreach to the Israeli people by appearing on Israeli television...

Abbas's performance in the television interview was conciliatory in terms of style but not very persuasive, especially since Israelis know very well how hostile he is toward Israel in speaking to his own internal audience. In fact, they even know what's airing simultaneously on the television and radio stations controlled by Abbas (see below).

The main problem, though, is that Abbas's message basically came down to saying that Israelis should trust him. Needless to say, this kind of thing has been tried in the past but hasn't worked out very well.

His claim to speak for "all Palestinians," that is including those under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip, and insistence the two sides would achieve unity was particularly amusing. Incidentally, one of the most interesting aspects of the interview is that Abbas flatly refused to say that he preferred Obama to his predecessor, George W. Bush. That's a point that should inspire some thinking in Washington DC.

"and [Obama] urged that President Abbas do everything he can to prevent acts of incitement or delegitimization of Israel."

This is interesting and could be encouraging. Obama is asking Abbas to do something and that was the right thing to say. But here's the problem: as Abbas engages in incitement, the PA incites, and the PA doesn't interfere with incitement, will Obama say or do something?

After all, we know that if an Israeli construction crew turns over some shovels of dirt for a construction project in east Jerusalem, the United States will scream out protest. But if the PA names squares for terrorists, produces broadcasts delegitimizing Israel, secretly lets terrorists out of jail, and so on, there will not be a peep.

But let's consider what's going on meanwhile in the real world. Palestinian Media Watch reports that on the PA's own television station this week the program "We Are Returning," shows a map in which all of Israel is erased and covered with a Palestinian flag.

The program explains that Israeli Jews should go to places like the Ukraine and Ethiopia: "Please, I ask of you, return to your original homeland, so that I can return to my original homeland. This is my homeland; go back to your homeland!"

This kind of thing goes on in PA-controlled mosques, classrooms, media, and in speeches by PA or Fatah officials on a daily basis. The U.S. government virtually ignores it. There are no programs, articles, classes, sermons, and speeches in which PA officials and employees urge their people to live peacefully side by side with Israel and accept that country's existence permanently.

"The President confirmed his intention to hold both sides accountable for actions that undermine trust during the talks."

Both sides? See previous paragraph. One certainly hopes so but sort of doubts that.

"He said he looks forward to receiving President Abbas at the White House soon."

No doubt he will receive a warmer greeting than the one given to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his last visit.

Any way, that's the thing about official statements. If the government making them actually did what it said things wouldn't be so bad.

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