Yossi Alpher
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
February 20, 2012 - 1:00am

For Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, as for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the primary objective of 2012 with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to get through the year without a peace process failure, without major violence, and perhaps with some marginal achievement in the context of regional developments like the "Arab spring" that position each of them better for 2013. A genuine peace process is most definitely not anybody's realistic objective. It is in this context that we can address President Barack Obama's objectives as well.

What are the leaders' options for achieving these goals?

Abbas is juggling three. He is moving ahead, however slowly, on reconciliation with Hamas, a process that now looks certain to extend throughout most of the year, if it reaches fruition at all. He is threatening, off and on, to go back to the United Nations to ask for some form of state recognition that is designed, ostensibly, to enhance Palestinian strategic maneuverability. And he is playing with the Quartet-sponsored peace process, in full recognition that neither he nor Netanyahu is a prospective partner in a viable process, but that both are anxious not to alienate either the international community or host countries like Jordan. Abbas can be described as "juggling" these options because they don't easily coexist in the same time and space. He seemingly has to keep all three in the air simultaneously.

Netanyahu also confronts several options, but he doesn't have to juggle them since they are all relatively compatible. For one, he knows he doesn't have to worry about pressure from Obama regarding the peace process in an American election year. Nevertheless, he does have to carefully coordinate Iran-related issues with the US, and this means paying lip service to Washington's declared goal of negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization with reference to specific positions--some of which, like the 1967 lines with swaps and reduced settlement activity, Netanyahu finds unacceptable. Meanwhile, he can expand settlement construction at a dizzying rate, while showing up for negotiations whenever invited as long as Abbas' more rigid preconditions--total settlement freeze, 1967 lines--can safely be ignored.

Both Abbas and Netanyahu confront a fairly flexible option to hold elections in 2012 if it suits their purpose for this year and next. Abbas probably won't hold them unless Hamas accepts most of his conditions; he has procrastinated for two years already, and could conceivably get away with another. Netanyahu might want to hold elections this year in order to burnish his leadership profile if he anticipates that Obama will be reelected in November and make trouble for him over the Palestinian issue next year.

Obama, of course, cannot be flexible regarding his election date. It is already quite clear that he intends to avoid any risk-taking whatsoever in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere during this election year. The more interesting question, then, is what Obama and his advisers are contemplating for 2013, on the assumption he is reelected. This is an issue of vital importance to both Netanyahu and Abbas.

For a reelected Obama, the option of more of the same in 2013, as in 2009-12, is almost certainly out of the question. No more Mitchell missions and transparent "engagement" that allows the parties to do as they wish and ignore the administration's ideas because they are not backed up with "muscle". It will either be everything, or nothing: either an all-out assault on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with lots of presidential ideas and plenty of hitherto unheard-of arm-twisting, or a James Baker-like "here's my phone number, call me if you get serious but otherwise stew in your own juice."

Are Netanyahu and Abbas thinking beyond 2012 and taking these two possibilities into account? Netanyahu at least knows how to read the map of US politics. By all indications, Abbas doesn't.


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