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Does Bibi Have the Upper Hand?

What happens after the step backward from direct peace talks

Marc Tracy
December 13, 2010
Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday at his weekly cabinet meeting.(Bernat Armangue - Pool/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday at his weekly cabinet meeting.(Bernat Armangue - Pool/Getty Images)

And we’re back to proximity talks*! A few days after the United States announced it was giving up on trying to secure a 90-day freeze extension—which itself was something of a step back from the heady late-summer days of biweekly direct talks and a one-year timeframe for peace—Secretary of State Clinton proclaimed that the U.S. would switch back to trying to facilitate an agreement via indirect negotiations, with envoy George Mitchell once again serving as the prime shuttle between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government and President Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

Clinton’s most (and only?) telling line was: “The Palestinian leaders must be able to show their people that the occupation will be over.” This signaled American awareness of Abbas’s precarious position—the P.A. has no control in Gaza and arguable popularity and democratic legitimacy in the West Bank—while it also arguably placed the onus on Israel to take steps to buttress Abbas.

Yet most accounts have Israel as the winner and the P.A. as the loser in the two-sided negotiating battle. “The Israeli reaction to the American decision was relief,” reported Ethan Bronner, the Times Jerusalem bureau chief, last week. He added, “The Palestinians are unhappy with this turn of events.”

In Ramallah, there is deep disappointment, along with plans to seek Arab League backing for a rejection of even the indirect talks. “We don’t want to return to indirect talks to once again discuss agendas for the negotiations,” said one senior official, “because we will then waste another year.”

Writing in his Sunday column, Thomas Friedman seems nearly as hard on the Israelis as the Palestinian Authority was—he refers to “the failed attempt by the U.S. to bribe Israel with a $3 billion security assistance package, diplomatic cover and advanced F-35 fighter aircraft”—yet endorses the step backward to indirect talks. “It’s all a fraud,” he argues—something any clear-eyed observer would agree with. But then he adds: “America must get out of the way so Israelis and Palestinians can see clearly, without any obstructions, what reckless choices their leaders are making.”

Is he right, or is the P.A. right that this is a good deal for Israel?

Where Friedman and the P.A. seem to diverge is that the P.A. does not expect Netanyahu to agree to any deal right now where Friedman, at least implicitly, does. “Israel,” Friedman pleads, “when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not ‘How much?’ It is: ‘Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.’”

Yet when I spoke with experienced Mideast hand Aaron David Miller a month ago, he observed a “much-diminished administration”—the Republican windfall in the midterm elections played only a minor role in this analysis—and an Israeli prime minister who “convinced himself that they need him more than he needs them,” and is “willing to stand his ground.”

Friedman’s problem is that he fundamentally confuses how carrots and sticks are supposed to work. Rational actors like Netanyahu don’t pay people back for past rewards (“… lavished billions on you over the last 50 years …”) but for future rewards. And rational actors do not agree to a deal for something (“a $3 billion security assistance package, diplomatic cover and advanced F-35 fighter aircraft”) that it knows it is probably going to get anyway for completely unrelated reasons (one word: Iran). Netanyahu is not afraid of fundamentally losing American support. (If he is afraid of anything, it is the sense opposition leader Tzipi Livni is making: She said yesterday that Bibi’s current right-wing coalition won’t agree to any feasible peace deal, which is difficult to dispute.)

So everything is back to normal: George Mitchell is in town; the Israelis are reluctant to offer preconditions; the Palestinians anxiously await Israel’s and America’s next moves while toying with a separate path to international recognition (see Brazil’s and Argentina’s recognition of Palestinian sovereignty earlier this month). There may be a bizarre storm in the region, but other than that, it seems like old times.

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