On my weekly television show “Viewpoint With James Zogby,” I hosted PLO Executive Committee member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi to critique the July 6 White House meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Dr. Ashrawi’s observations are important and I wanted to share them.
In discussing Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks, Ashrawi warned that moving to direct talks when no progress has been made will lead to the Palestinian national leadership’s loss of credibility with its own constituents. Responding to the question of whether President Abbas would ultimately be willing to engage in direct talks under present conditions if pressed by President Obama, Ashrawi noted:
“President Obama has to understand you can push too far. You can really push people over the edge. They pay attention to Israeli democracy and public opinion and coalition requirements but they do not pay attention to the fact that the Palestinians have a very vibrant and active democracy and very active and outspoken public opinion, and they have to understand president Abbas does not have a free hand to just make unilateral single decisions like that in a vacuum … you keep pushing one person – and I say, don’t make the P.L.O. and national leadership commit political suicide. You cannot push them beyond their abilities and to lose their credibility with their own constituency. So if you need a leadership with credibility, with the ability to deliver, you cannot undermine them.”
Ashrawi noted that there was a disconnect between public discourse on the talks where progress is often reported and the reality of the talks where she said there was no progress whatsoever. “Perceptions have become much more important than substance,” said Ashrawi, attributing the discord between the rhetoric and reality of the proximity talks to domestic considerations in the US and Israel, which coincided in favor of presenting an image of reconciliation and progress when none really existed.
“Netanyahu wants to present his public, his coalition, with the fact that he has mended fences, that he can speak to Americans, and that he’s not a liability because people saw him as a liability when it came to American/Israeli relations. Obama needs to show that he has mended fences also because of the upcoming elections … and because he’s under a lot of pressure to show that he’s quite willing to restore Israel to its special status position with the U.S.”
Left out of this equation are the Palestinians, whose interests lie in actual progress on the ground and not the mere public image of progress. Palestinian reluctance to engage in direct talks under current conditions stems from their experience with the failed peace process of the 1990s, where the negotiations were a mere symbolic exercise, which Israel used to buy time while it expanded settlements and unilaterally reshaped the facts on the ground. According to Ashrawi:
“[The Palestinian] position is not just an emotional reaction, it’s a well thought out position saying we’ve talked forever and they’ve built settlements forever. We negotiated in good faith and what they did was negate negotiations and destroy the two-state solution on the ground. So the question is one of urgency, and one of intervention to curb Israeli behavior. It’s not a question of just talks.”
Today, the Palestinians find themselves in a similar position, under pressure to negotiate while Israel continues imposing its facts on the ground with no regard for the substance of the negotiations. “The situation is extremely critical,” said Ashrawi, “Palestinian public opinion is highly inflamed, and it’s very intelligent, very well informed, and very critical … Palestinians judge things by what happens on the ground and they see no progress whatsoever.”
Ashrawi explained that the talks are not an end in and of themselves, but are means to a just and lasting solution; and unless the Obama administration demonstrates the political will to curb Israeli policies, the talks will likely face the same failure of previous talks and for the same reason.