Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - by Yoshiko Kusano, WEF - Creative Commons license.

Having discussed how the Israelis never seem to miss a chance at sabotaging the current American-sponsored peace talks, it would be negligent to ignore Palestinian moves that too, risk derailing the chances of a negotiated two-state solution. It is important to remember that just as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has cemented himself into the position that he will not renew the settlement freeze, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is politically unable to back down from his insistence on a renewed building moratorium before he will return to direct talks. By focusing on the issue of settlement construction, Abbas is able to ignore more debilitating barriers to a peace deal such as the schism between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Furthermore, it is looking more and more as if the Palestinian leadership is counting on the current round of peace talks to fail over the settlement issue so that they can attempt to change international political realities by asking world powers to recognize Palestinian statehood or by seeking UN resolutions condemning Israeli actions.

Abbas on Thursday reiterated his threats to seek a resolution in the UN condemning Israeli settlement actions if the building freeze (that expired at the end of September) is not renewed. Although the Israelis would perceived such a move as deliberately-antagonistic, it seems to actually be an attempt to back down from the game-changing move of seeking international recognition of Palestinian statehood. This does not, however, change Abbas’ intentions – to change the international political realities surrounding the peace process, thereby strengthening the Palestinian negotiating position. Israel’s defensive posture can be expected to stiffen in such a scenario, deepening the trench-like positions that both sides’ leaders have dug themselves into. Such moves would make the compromise necessary for a negotiated settlement ever-more distant.

Asking Israel to cease settlement construction is not unreasonable. It is a demand that has previously been made of, and acquiesced to by Israeli governments in previous peace talks. However, to quote Abbas’ message to Netanyahu on Thursday (albeit out of context), “peace is more important than settlement building.” It is understood that once borders are established, there will be no more Israeli building on the Palestinian side of whatever lines are drawn. Without detracting from the reality that the settlements are a true obstacle to peace, surely Abbas must have asked himself if a few months without Israeli construction in the territories is worth scuttling the entire process.

By focusing on the settlement issue and blaming the lack of progress in talks on Israel, the Palestinian president (whose term has expired) is able to ignore the ongoing schism with Hamas and the absence of a unified governing body. It is not just that Abbas lacks the democratic mandate to negotiate the future of the Palestinian people. He also lacks the physical control over the incontiguous Palestinian territory necessary to implement any agreement he may reach. In the past, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization may have lacked the political support to reach a peace deal, but today it is in a far weaker position. Until reconciliation talks take place – and succeed – with Hamas, who has full political and security control over the Gaza Strip, Abbas is unable to legitimately negotiate with Israel. The idea that he is grasping for excuses not to enter peace talks is valid due to his inability to follow through with them.

It would be far from fair to say that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians are single-handedly responsible for the quickly-vanishing prospects of the current round of talks bearing any fruit. Israel’s leadership has been diligent in ensuring it does not miss any opportunity to reduce the chances of the peace process succeeding. However much the Palestinians are in fact the underdogs, being the weak party does not in-and-of-itself make them angels with pure intentions. Abbas’ entrenched position demanding a complete settlement moratorium is a diversionary tactic meant to place blame for the talks’ failure on the Israelis, distract from his own lack of legitimacy to reach an agreement, and to avoid taking bold steps in order to reach a negotiated deal with Israel. US President Obama said in his response to plans for massive construction in East Jerusalem and Ariel, saying, “we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough.” The Palestinians, like the Israelis, are simply not making any serious efforts or taking bold steps in order to give the talks a chance.