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September 25, 2011
Abbas arrives at the UN with a bang, leaves NY with a whimper
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas arrived in New York with supreme confidence that the United Nations would approve Palestinian statehood and give Israel a black eye. But a funny thing happened on the East Side that sidetracked Abbas's agenda, leaving him sputtering against a joint move by the most potent international players who confronted him with a starkly different course that Israel readily embraced.
To parse what actually happened in New York, one has to recognize that, in delving again into the morass of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there actually were two proceedings going on.
While the cameras were focused on Abbas strutting to the podium of the UN General Assembly, there were more significant, behind-the-scenes meetings of the Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN. And the Quartet, instead of endorsing Palestinian statehood, put all its influence behind a quite different move to get Abbas to sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and resume serious negotiations --- something Netanyahu repeatedly advocated for the last year.
And here was the real rub: The Quartet's statement called for resumption of bilateral talks "without conditions" -- a slap at Abbas, who kept demanding that Israel freeze Jewish construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and agree to borders along the 1967 lines before talks could even get under way.
No wonder that the Palestinians, suddenly on the defensive, slammed the Quatet's communique, while Israel signaled its acceptance.
In its call for unconditional talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the Quartet set a tight deadline -- a start of negotiations in one month, comprehensive proposals by each side on borders and security in three months, substantial agreement in six months, and a final two-state peace deal before the end of 2012. And since the Quartet wants the two sides to grapple early on with borders, this means that Jerusalem would be in immediate play. Because if you're going to chart a border between Israel and Palestine, Jerusalem has got to be located somewhere -- whether split in two as Abbas wants or united, as Bibi wants.
What would Abbas have to do if the Quartet were to succeed in dragging him to the negotiating table? Within three months, he would have to show his opening cards, presumably a repeat of his uncompromising address to the UN General Assembly -- a Palestinian state in all of Gaza, all of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem, including Jerusalem's Old City with the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.
On security for Israel, Abbas -- judging again by his harsh UN speech -- would provide essentially nothing. He certainly wouldn't dare demilitarize Hamas-ruled Gaza with its thousands of rocket and mortar shells aimed at Israel.
For his part, Netanyahu presumably would give the Palestinians all of Gaza -- please keep it -- but very little if anything of East Jerusalem and about 90 percent of the West Bank, with Israel keeping Ariel, and close-in major settlement blocs like Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim. Bibi's stance would be less generous than Ehud Barak's in 2000-01 and Ehud Olmert's in 2008. But those initiatives were rejected by the Palestinian leadership and history rarely repeats itself.
When it comes to security, the positions of the two parties would be even more divergent because Netanyahu already is on record as demanding a demilitarized Palestinian state and an Israeli military presence along the Jordan Valley -- provisions certain to be rejected by Abbas.
The Quartet's script then gets even more interesting when it comes to attempts to narrow these gaps. Netanyahu might inch toward a compromise with slight changes on his map and with modifications of security arrangements. But Abbas has no room for any flexibility. His intransigent UN speech made that amply clear. And with Hamas looking over his shoulder and threatening sharp reprisals if he dares show an inch of flexibility, Abbas is not about to stick his neck out and invite a Palestinian civil war.
Abbas is boxed in. He overplayed his hand and was left empty-handed as he returned to Ramallah. He still may get a largely symbolic statehood boost from the UN General Assembly, but as the week progressed, he was left without the nine votes necessary for a Security Council statehood resolution that actually would have some teeth, and in any case, the U.S. was prepared to veto any such measure were Abbas to find nine votes in the 15-member council.
As the week ended, it turned out to be a downer for Abbas. He was left licking his wounds, having been repudiated by the Quartet ,which changed the agenda from statehood to genuine negotiations. At the end, it was not Israel that was isolated but the Palestinians
When it comes to defining the much-abused reference to the "international community," whatever that is, Israel didn't do too badly, with a Quartet statement subscribed to by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN in the person of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
That's a more impressive "international community" than the UN General Assembly and its political theatrics.
Abbas may have arrived at the UN with a bang, but he left with a whimper, while Netanyahu returned to Jerusalem with a big trophy -- full Quartet support for unconditional resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
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