Playing for time

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is currently managing two very different and in many ways contradictory negotiating tracks. Neither has produced any sort of substantive success thus far. If one does produce a breakthrough, the other will probably collapse. Meanwhile, the counterpoint between them is instructive.

In Amman, Abbas’ representative Saeb Erekat is discussing with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s delegate, Yitzhak Molcho, the conditions for a possible renewal of final status negotiations. In Cairo, Abbas has met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to chart a course for Hamas-Fateh reconciliation within the framework of the PLO as well as through the instrument of new Palestinian Authority elections.

In agreeing to the Amman talks, Abbas is catering to the need of Jordan’s King Abdullah II to demonstrate progress toward greater Israeli-Palestinian understanding as a means of stabilizing his kingdom and his rule in the face of widespread popular dissatisfaction. Abdullah, who is visiting Washington this week, can brag there about having brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table at a time when the Obama administration and the Quartet have proven incapable of doing so.

In entering into negotiations with Meshaal in Cairo–talks that have extended into Gaza as well–Abbas is bowing to pressure from Egypt’s military rulers. The latter, for their part, have adopted a conciliatory attitude toward Hamas that reflects the massive electoral popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more strict Salafists.

Between Amman and Cairo, then, the two tracks of talks appear to reflect developments in the regional Arab revolutionary wave. The Cairo track, in particular, seemingly points to an assessment on Abbas’ part that he needs to integrate Hamas into broader Palestinian politics in order to accommodate the rise of political Islam throughout the Arab world. Hamas, incidentally, has condemned the Amman talks, much as it has opposed a third strategy developed in the course of the past year or so by Abbas: an appeal to United Nations and other agencies to delegitimize Israel and support Palestinian statehood. Hamas apparently fears that success for Abbas on either of these tracks would obviate his need to reconcile with the Islamist movement.

But is there any real potential substance to these tracks? The Amman negotiations have no chance of producing genuine progress toward a two-state solution, given the huge gaps separating Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s positions. The best one can hope for–and this too is doubtful–is agreement on a series of confidence-building measures: Israeli territorial and security concessions in areas B and C of the West Bank in return for a PLO commitment to abandon the UN/de-legitimization track. Netanyahu, who has rejected such moves consistently for three years even after at one point promising the Quartet to adopt them, might theoretically now be "ripe" for this approach if indeed he is contemplating early elections for which he grudgingly needs to point to some sort of negotiating achievement. As for Abbas, he too needs such an achievement for domestic political reasons. Hamas could presumably live with territorial/security confidence-building measures in the West Bank, too.

On the other hand, any sort of breakthrough in the Hamas-Fateh negotiations is liable to scuttle both the Amman talks and the UN track. The Amman talks would suffer because Israel and the United States, if not the entire Quartet, would refuse to deal with a Palestinian leadership that integrates Hamas as currently constituted. The UN track would be abandoned due to Hamas’ own disapproval. Netanyahu, who fears real progress toward a two-state solution, would presumably not mourn the demise of either track.

Then why should Netanyahu have a problem with Palestinian reconciliation? After all, Israel should long ago have acknowledged failure to develop a viable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. If Israel is receptive to the idea, reconciliation could provide an opening for a possibly productive dialogue with Hamas. The US and the Quartet, too, have to recognize that after 18 years the Oslo process has ceased being relevant and should be replaced with a model that focuses on the kind of territorial agreement Hamas could conceivably live with.

Yet when it comes to Palestinian reconciliation, Israel also has legitimate reasons for caution. Reconciliation, if it happens, will be a by-product of the rise of political Islam throughout the Arab world. We do not know how that revolutionary process will end in any of the affected countries. This reality may even explain why not only Abbas, but Netanyahu too, appears to be playing for time on all fronts.