Will proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority soon begin? While both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas have said they hope so, the matter is no longer in the hands of the Palestinians but in those of the Arab League foreign ministers--who meet May 1.
Two stories this week in Haaretz, the Israeli daily, make this clear. The first story recounts an interview Abbas gave Israeli TV, and notes that “Abbas said he hopes to get Arab League approval for indirect talks on May 1.” The second story recycles an item from the newspaper Al-Watan in Damascus, and begins this way: “The Arab League is expected to reject the Obama administration's proposal to begin indirect Middle East peace negotiations in the coming weeks, sources from the 22-state body told Syria's Al-Watan daily on Tuesday. The League's Monitoring Committee for the Arab Peace Initiative is scheduled to meet on Saturday to vote on the proposal, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is unlikely to accept any offer for peace talks that does not meet the panel's approval.”
There are two remarkable elements here.
First, Abbas is now refusing to make any decision about peace, instead deferring to Arab states. With all the talk about the critical importance of Palestinian independence, this is a giant--even historic--step backwards. His motivations are not complex: He wants to avoid Palestinian and wider Arab criticism. As long as he follows Arab League strictures he will. But the price paid is hugely reduced flexibility, and a return to the days when the Palestinians were under the control of Arab states rather than masters of their own future.
Second, putting the Arab League in charge magnifies the influence of bad actors. To get negotiations going, the Obama administration now has to convince not only Abbas, but Bashar al Assad. Perhaps this helps explain why George Mitchell has visited Damascus and why the administration persists in “outreach” to Syria despite its continuing evil conduct (most recently, reports of the shipment of Scud missiles to Hezbollah). Having committed itself to the “peace process,” the administration simply cannot afford to treat Syria as it deserves; Syria has too much clout now.
The Arab League Monitoring or "follow-up committee" includes Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Arab League Secretary General Amre Moussa. This means that the influence of Egypt and Jordan, which have peace treaties with Israel, is undermined by that of Syria, Qatar, and Moussa--all likely to take positions adverse to U.S. and Palestinian interests. Abbas’s refusal to provide firm leadership (also evident in the amount of time he spends circling the globe or living in his home in Amman, Jordan) may prove costly to both the United States and his own people.
Abbas is now scheduled to visit Washington, presumably in May--after the Arab League meeting. If the foreign ministers back his entry into proximity talks, he will no doubt tell President Obama that he’s willing to move forward. Talks might have actually begun before he arrives. If the Arab states say no, his visit will be a disaster--and indeed could even be postponed. But in either event, it is a diminished Abbas who will visit here. Once again the Arab states intrude deeply into the “peace process,” and as always they will have their own national interests at heart--not the fate of the Palestinians.
Abbas certainly bears great responsibility for this development, but one can’t hold George Mitchell and Obama policy harmless. Fifteen months of Obama diplomacy have not only badly damaged U.S.-Israel relations and produced no peace talks, they have also undermined Palestinian autonomy. It is a keen measure of the fall of American influence in the region when a Palestinian leader responds to intense American pressure to go to the negotiating table by waiting to see if Arab League foreign ministers will let him take that step.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.