Rather than bargain with Israel, Abbas seems inclined to go along with his aides’ plan to seek a U.N. declaration of Palestinian statehood at the next General Assembly in September.
This might not be so troubling for Netanyahu, who is also not eager to make concessions for a peace deal, if not for his second problem: Obama continues to believe that Israel’s government, and not the Palestinians, is the primary obstacle to peace.
The president made his mind-set clear from the beginning of his administration, when he chose to begin his diplomacy by demanding a complete freeze on Israeli settlement activity — a condition Abbas had never set but which he quickly adopted as his own. In a meeting with American Jewish leaders at the White House this month, Obama indicated that he hadn’t changed his mind. Abbas, he insisted, was ready to establish a Palestinian state. The problem was that Israel had not made a serious territorial offer.
Netanyahu feels compelled to counter the Palestinian offensive at the United Nations, which his defense minister, Ehud Barak, says could turn into “an anti-Israeli diplomatic tsunami.” For that he will need the support of Obama. So Netanyahu has committed himself to deliver what could be the most-anticipated speech in Israel’s history — an address to the U.S. Congress in May in which he is to lay out a new “vision” for peace.
To satisfy Abbas and Obama, Netanyahu will have to promise a significant concession. In the words of the Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar, “he will have to utter, with his own mouth, the magic words” — that a Palestinian state will be based on Israel returning to its 1967 borders. But if he does that, Netanyahu will infuriate most of his cabinet and probably cause the collapse of his coalition. His supporters believe he will also give up Israel’s best negotiating chip — territory — before the real bargaining even begins.
Netanyahu felt comfortable enough with the Gaza mini-war and the state of security in Jerusalem last week to carry on with a planned trip to Russia. The coming showdown with Obama will require his full attention.