President Abbas this weekend, in the first photograph in which he has ever looked happy.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)
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Abbas Sits Pretty in Peace Process Football

Israel’s acceptance of Quartet framework makes it his move

Marc Tracy
October 03, 2011
President Abbas this weekend, in the first photograph in which he has ever looked happy.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

In football, when a team is set to punt on fourth-and-short, sometimes it will line up as though it is going for it, in the hopes that it can provoke its opponent into a penalty—offside, usually—that gives it extra yards and a first down. If the defense doesn’t bite, the offense dejectedly calls timeout (or accepts a delay-of-game penalty) and then punts. Israel kind of just pulled the same thing with the Middle East Quartet resolution calling for a resumption of direct negotiations.

Let’s look at the replay. The Quartet statement, which was pushed through by the United States (one of its four members, along with the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia) at the same time that the Palestinians submitted their membership resolution to the U.N. Security Council, calls on both sides to “refrain from provocative actions” yet also dictates talks “without preconditions,” so you can read it either as demanding a settlement freeze or not demanding one, and both sides have duly read it the way they would prefer. Last week, Israel’s cabinet failed to come to a position on it. This indecision was likely designed to provoke the Palestinian Authority into a screw-up, but instead, the P.A. put forth cautious, ambiguous statements, insisting that talks commence—and insisting that the resolution insists that talks commence—only once Israel has agreed to a settlement freeze. Then, later last week, Israel announced new construction in East Jerusalem, dubbed, yes, a provocative action by Secretary of State Clinton, who was essentially responsible for putting the resolution together. In football terms, Israel, rather than drawing the defense offside, got slapped with a false start penalty—Eli Yishai might be the offending far-right tackle, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel the referee who threw a flag—which left it forced, yesterday, to accept the Quartet resolution, avec spin: “Israel welcomes the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions, as called for by both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” its statement read. The State Department responded with similarly laudatory words (and similar spin: “… negotiations without preconditions”). Palestinian ball, their own 20-yard line. What will they do? (End of metaphor. An actual football post, however, is forthcoming!)

Hussein Ibish has a nice summary. I’m not sure their incentives to engage on the Quartet resolution, especially as it is construed by the White House to demand talks without a settlement freeze, are especially high. Ibish doesn’t even cite doing so as one of the five tacks they could take—the closest he comes is to suggest that the Palestinians try to persuade the Quartet to adopt more favorable language. Egypt slammed the Quartet resolution almost as soon as it dropped, so President Abbas will definitely be covered if he dithers. The U.S. Congress continues to make noise about conditioning P.A. aid on the dropping of the U.N. path, but since the Obama and Netanyahu administrations both understand that such a move would be disastrous for Israel, this is highly unlikely ever to happen—and the P.A. knows that, too. Israelis, for their part, appear to understand that the peace process is dead, yet, for them, this does not represent the end of their lives or their country.

Given that a continuing push at the Security Council will result in a drawn-out process and then either a very possible, humiliating defeat by non-veto votes or, alternatively, a certain defeat by U.S. veto, Abbas, I think, would be wise to turn to the General Assembly, where he can get a quick vote either with E.U. cooperation or on his own (both are suggestions of Ibish’s). It’s not a touchdown (sorry I’m going back to the football analogy), but it will give them good field position. The choice Ibish doesn’t mention, of violence, would be the worst outcome, in all ways, for everyone except the extremists.

Israel Accepts Peace Talks Plan [WP]
Abbas Aide Urges Quartet to Press for Israeli Settlement Halt [WP]
Where Do We Go From Here? [Foreign Policy]
Egypt Drops Cold Water on New Middle East Peace Process [FP Turtle Bay]
Related: Israel’s Cabinet Fails to Reach Consensus on Quartet Plan for Talks With Palestinians [Haaretz]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.