What If Nobody Came to a U.S. Peace Process?

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From left: Lucas Dolega / EPA; Aude Guerrucci / Corbis; Frank Bruns / EPA

From left: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

"We can't want peace more than the parties themselves," President George W. Bush once said of his Administration's limited efforts to broker agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. And while President Barack Obama has brought more vigor and urgency than his predecessor to the quest for a two-state peace, this week he finds himself in the position of wanting to restart peace talks more than the parties themselves do. Obama will meet with Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York City. But both sides have made clear that they'll essentially be humoring Obama, showing up because the President of the United States expects it of them and not to relaunch long-stalled "final status" peace negotiations, as the Administration had hoped.

Abbas has refused to relaunch negotiations with the Israelis until they agree to the freeze on construction on land conquered in 1967 — as Obama has demanded — and agree to negotiate on all final-status issues, including sharing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu's government has offered only a partial settlement freeze and refuses to negotiate over Jerusalem or refugees. So while Abbas will glumly show up in New York City, he has no intention of relaunching negotiations on the terms currently on offer. "The Americans have failed to convince the Israelis to halt settlement, and now they want a photo opportunity," a Palestinian official speaking to Reuters said of the New York City meeting. "We'll do this not to upset Obama. But it's a victory for Netanyahu."

The Israeli leader, for his part, has been quite happy to hold peace talks with Abbas, but not on the terms envisaged by the Palestinian leader or Obama. After years of rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu has responded to Obama's pressure by accepting the principle of it, but on terms too limited to be accepted by any Palestinian leader. Skeptical of the value of negotiating now over a long-term political settlement and insisting that key final-status issues such as Jerusalem and refugees are not up for negotiation, Netanyahu prefers to focus on what he calls "economic peace" — developing the Palestinian economy as a basis for long-term stability in the relationship between the two peoples. But he's happy to go through the motions on his own terms. "There'll ... be some kind of handshake, because this is what Obama wants," an Israeli official told Reuters. "But it's not going anywhere longer term ... With all due respect to Obama, this is not realistic. Everyone wants a process ... but nobody actually wants peace — because peace you have to pay for."

Obama has made restarting the peace process a foreign policy priority and a key plank of his effort to repair relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. But nine months of intensive diplomacy by his special envoy, Senator George Mitchell, has produced little substantial movement toward reviving negotiations. As he makes his U.N. debut this week, Obama needs the symbolic New York City meeting more than Netanyahu and Abbas do. Indeed, a White House spokesman told the New York Times that the purpose of the meeting is to "show [the President's] determination to get the process moving again."

The problem in getting the process moving again, of course, is that Netanyahu and Abbas don't share a common destination. The Israeli Prime Minister has surged in Israeli opinion polls by pushing back against Obama's settlement-freeze demands, and he is under no domestic pressure to make any concessions. But Abbas' domestic constituency will see the New York City meeting as yet another humiliation inflicted on him by Washington, which has had him pose for endless photographs with an array of Israeli leaders who have no intention of satisfying the basic demands of a peace agreement he could accept. In a bid to reclaim some of the ground he has consequently lost to the more radical Hamas organization, Abbas had refused to meet with the Israelis until they established their bona fides through a settlement freeze. By meeting with Netanyahu absent that halt to construction on occupied territory, the Palestinian Authority President risks further undermining his already diminished authority.

Each side, predictably, is blaming the other for the impasse. Netanyahu last week warned that Abbas will have to "decide if he is Arafat or Sadat." Sadat is hailed in Israel and the U.S. as a peacemaker, while Arafat has been portrayed as an obstacle to peace. But things look very different to the Palestinians: Abbas has a portrait of Arafat hanging in his office, and seeks to draw authority by claiming to represent his legacy; it's highly unlikely that any Palestinian politician would claim Sadat as an object of emulation.

The stalemate goes far beyond the atmospherics of Tuesday's New York City meeting. The Palestinians have lost all faith in the Israeli government's willingness to make the concessions needed for a credible two-state solution and see U.S. pressure as the only way to achieve that outcome. That's the message in Abbas' refusal to talk in the absence of a settlement freeze. But after demanding such a freeze and then being rebuffed by Netanyahu, Obama finds himself trying to imagine a peace process between two leaders whose visions of peace are incompatible with those of their counterparts. The fact that they'll still show up when Obama calls is simply a reminder that the fate of the peace process may rest largely in the White House — and the extent to which the U.S. wants an agreement more than the parties themselves do.