The prospects are dim but the process is right. The Obama administration is to be commended for structuring the latest rounds of Middle East talks correctly. Finally, we're leaving behind interim agreements, of which the most lamentable were the Oslo accords of 1993.
The logic then was that issues so complicated could only be addressed step by step in the expectation that things get easier over time. In fact, they got harder. Israel made concrete concessions -- bringing in Yasser Arafat to run the West Bank and Gaza -- in return for which Israel received growing threats, continuous incitement and finally a full-scale terror war that killed more than a thousand innocent Israelis.
Among the victims was the Israeli peace movement and its illusions about Palestinian acceptance of Israel. The Israeli left, mugged by reality, is now moribund. And the Israeli right is chastened. No serious player believes it can hang on forever to the West Bank.
This has created a unique phenomenon in Israel -- a broad-based national consensus for giving nearly all the West Bank in return for peace. The moment is doubly unique because the only man who can deliver such a deal is Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu -- and he is prepared to do it.
Hence the wisdom of how the Obama administration has shaped the coming talks: No interim deals, no partial agreements. There are no mutual concessions that can be made separately within the great issues -- territory, security, Jerusalem, the so-called right of return -- to reach agreement. The concessions must be among these issues -- thus if Israel gives up its dream of a united Jerusalem, for example, the Palestinians in return give up their dream of the right of return.
Most important is the directive issued by U.S. peace negotiator George Mitchell: What's under discussion is a final settlement of the conflict. Meaning, no further claims. Conflict over.
What's standing in the way? Israeli settlements? Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of Israel's most nationalist politicians, lives in a settlement and has said openly that to achieve peace he and his family would abandon their home. What about the religious settlers? Might they not resist? Some tried that during the Gaza withdrawal, clinging to synagogue rooftops. What happened? Jewish soldiers pulled them down and took them away. If Israel is offered real peace, the soldiers will do that again.
The obstacle today, as always, is Palestinian refusal to accept a Jewish state. That has been the core issue of the conflict from 1947 through Camp David 2000, when Arafat rejected Israel's extraordinarily generous peace offer, made no counteroffer and started a terror war (the Second Intifada) two months later.
A final peace was there to be had. It remains on the table today. Unfortunately, there's no more sign today of a Palestinian desire for final peace than there was at Camp David. Even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants such an agreement (doubtful but possible), he simply doesn't have the authority. To accept a Jewish state, Abbas needs some kind of national consensus behind him. He doesn't even have a partial consensus. Hamas, which exists to destroy Israel, controls part of Palestine (Gaza) and is a powerful rival to Abbas's Fatah even in his home territory of the West Bank.
Indeed, this week Abbas flatly told al-Quds, the leading Palestinian newspaper, "We won't recognize Israel as a Jewish state." Nice way to get things off on the right foot.
What will Abbas do? Unable and/or unwilling to make peace, he will exploit President Obama's tactical blunder, the settlement freeze imposed on Israel despite the fact that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had gone on without such a precondition for 16 years prior. Abbas will walk out if the freeze is not renewed on Sept. 26. You don't need to be prescient to see that coming. Abbas has already announced that is what he'll do.
That would solve all of Abbas's problems. It would obviate signing on to a final settlement, fend off Hamas and make Israel the fall guy.
The trifecta. Why not walk out? The world, which already condemns Israel even for self-defense, will be only too eager to blame Israel for the negotiation breakdown. And there is growing pressure to create a Palestinian state even if the talks fail -- i.e., even if the Palestinians make no concessions at all. So why make any?
The talks are well designed. Unfortunately, Abbas knows perfectly well how to undermine them.