Criminal neglect

There can be little doubt that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu won the first round of Israeli-Palestinian engagement with the Obama administration–and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lost. Netanyahu executed a partial and problematic settlement construction freeze "balanced" by settlement provocations in Jerusalem and elsewhere. He was rewarded with US support for his readiness to open negotiations while his right-wing coalition stood behind him. Abbas misread American promises and assurances regarding the freeze and the Goldstone report. He ended up not only under American pressure to renew talks with Israel but also isolated politically.

Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s meetings with US President Barack Obama have been universally described as tense and unpleasant, while Obama’s relationship with Abbas seems convivial by comparison. The issue is clearly not one of personal chemistry. Rather, it appears to be institutional. Indeed, Israel’s superior capacity to maneuver concerning Washington’s approach to the conflict is not new and goes back decades.

The tools Israel musters in its relations with Washington are well known: an extremely effective lobby that is backed by a wealthy and influential American Jewish community and that works hard to establish influence with each new Congress and administration; close military-security-intelligence relations based on a communality of interests and shared regional threat assessments–once regarding the Soviets, now the Iranians and militant Islam; the perception of common value-systems; and currently, though not always, a prime minister who knows the American system well.

None of these components exists in the US-Palestine relationship. For the most part, there is little a Palestinian leader can do to compensate for these particular lacunae. Nevertheless, the Palestinian failure to understand how Washington works cannot be fully explained merely by the absence of a powerful diaspora or a shared Old Testament heritage.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of the poor Palestinian grasp of Washington was provided last May by Abbas in an interview to the Washington Post a day before his first meeting with Obama. Having bought fully into the Obama demand for a settlement freeze, Abbas assumed there was nothing for him to do but wait a year or two until Washington delivered the goods. "The Americans are the leaders of the world," he stated. "They can use their weight with anyone around the world. . . . Now they should tell the Israelis, ‘You have to comply with the conditions.’" Abbas went on to relate confidently how he had turned down PM Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching offer for a final status settlement: "The gaps were wide."

How many senators did Abbas brief and consult with during that visit regarding this bombastic approach? Where did he get it into his head that revealing the (hitherto secret) details of Olmert’s offer would endear him to the American public rather than paint him as a hardliner? What sort of Palestinian diplomatic and public diplomacy staff was in place in Washington to prepare and follow-up on his visit? Indeed, to what extent do Abbas and his advisers even begin to understand the American power structure with its checks, balances and nuances?

The rhetorical nature of these questions points to the prolonged lack of a serious effort on the part of the PLO to generate the tools needed for dealing effectively with the world’s superpower and the only potentially effective mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. Here we also encounter an historic reliance on Europe (as opposed to America) that contradicts everything the Palestinians should have learned by now about the European Union’s difficulties in dealing diplomatically with the Middle East. From the standpoint of the real welfare of the Palestinian people, its leaders’ neglect of Washington and its workings is positively criminal, on a par with their insistence on the right of return and their repeated (since 1936) rejection of territorial compromise offers.

Abbas’ complacency in coming to Washington last May and, subsequently, placing his confidence in unsustainable US administration positions regarding settlements and Goldstone may well have been affected by what Palestinians presumably identify as a positive trend in American opinion that informs not only the Obama approach. American support for Israel is indeed eroding, particularly in academia and other influential institutions. American Jewish support may be evolving into a more evenhanded approach, as illustrated by the emergence of a new Jewish lobby, J Street. And in the Obama age of "engagement", American-Israeli relations could conceivably be affected by growing anti-Israel and pro-Palestine sentiments in Europe and elsewhere.

So could Abbas be right that all he has to do is wait? I doubt it. Apparently, so does he, judging by his repeated threats to resign in view of his own failings. Finally, would a more effective Palestinian presence in Washington be a bad thing for Israel? Not necessarily, insofar as to be persuasive the policies advanced by that lobby would have to be more realistic. And not if you believe that ultimately only a realistic Israeli-Palestinian dialogue will produce peace.