Palestinian leaders once again appear to be rebuffing the opportunity for independence that history has lain at their door. They have abjectly refused to sit down at the negotiation table with the Netanyahu government until Israel ceases all building activity on the West Bank, including of course, if not pre-eminently, in and around Jerusalem.
The Palestinian demand is substantively hypocritical and tactically misguided.
Since the very first day he took over the role of president of the Palestinian Authority from Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas found no difficulty in carrying on peace negotiations with Israel, despite ongoing Israeli building in the West Bank. The future of the West Bank communities and the presence of Jews in the West Bank was and is an issue to be negotiated between the parties. Indeed, Arafat himself “negotiated” – the term is really a misnomer, because subsequent events showed he did not negotiate in good faith – with various Israel leaders even though Jews were constructing homes in the West Bank all the while he sat at the table with Israel. Arafat’s “negotiations” broke down over the issue of Jerusalem, not over West Bank construction.
For reasons related more to internal Palestinian politics rather than to bilateral bargaining, Abbas planted himself on an extreme policy limb regarding West Bank construction from which he has not found either the wisdom or the courage to retreat.
But the demand is also a tactical blunder. Quite apart from the merits of the substantive right of Jews, too, to live in the West Bank, how could Israel simply submit to the bullying demand of the Palestinian leader? How could anyone? And yet, the Netanyahu government has offered a freeze of construction – though not a cessation – pending the outcome of negotiations. Nevertheless, Abbas has chosen to pout and, yet again, proclaim his victimhood.
On Sunday, the Palestinian leadership once again showed its propensity for cunning and calamity. PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the PA had decided to ask the United Nations Security Council to recognize an independent state of Palestine whose territory would include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu correctly responded that unilateral steps by the Palestinians would abrogate all existing agreements and would invite unilateral counter-measures by Israel. “There is no substitute for negotiations,” he reiterated.
A unilateral declaration of statehood by the PA would undoubtedly play well against Hamas in the game of hard-line-one-upmanship, but it would wreak havoc in international diplomatic arenas. More ominously, it might set in motion an unpredictability of events on the ground that could lead to a new conflagration.
With this latest threat, the Palestinian leaders are sowing the wind, but they may very well reap the whirlwind.