Talks with Israel might be a good move for Palestinians

Second thoughts  on the ‘peace process’ resuming tonight. 

Maybe I’m trying to make something good out of a bad situation – I’ve written (here and here) that the Palestinians were getting screwed in these peace talks – but now I’m thinking that Abbas may have done the right thing by agreeing to negotiate with Netanyahu, even without Netanyahu’s agreement that the baseline be the ’67 borders. Oudeh Basharat wrote a very wise column in Haaretz today, arguing that point:

Abbas is conducting his policies with one eye on the national interest and the other on the needs of his population.

The needs of the population: The Palestinians have 5,000 prisoners in Israeli jails, they are economically depressed, they are tied up and tripped up by the occupation in a million different ways. Yesterday, because of the Palestinian Authority’s agreement to go to Washington today, they got the promised return (backed by the U.S.) of their 104 longest-serving prisoners. Beyond that, it is likely that Kerry will be pushing Israel for easements on the spider’s web of restrictions that Palestinians face. (He seems to have an appreciation of the problem; as a senator in 2009, he personally importuned the IDF to take pasta off the list of banned imports to the Gaza Strip.) And beyond that, they are likely to see a lot of money coming their way.

In terms of the needs of the population, what was the alternative? The alternative was to let the prisoners rot, for Palestinians’ day-to-day lives to get only worse, not better, and, according to various news reports, for the U.S. to hold up aid to the PA as punishment for refusing to negotiate.

That’s rough. That is a very high price to pay, for 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians to pay, for the principle of refusing to negotiate unless Israel not only releases prisoners, but also agrees to the ’67 borders with land swaps and to a complete freeze on settlement construction.

However, Abbas had to give in on more than just his preconditions for talks. He also agreed to suspend the PA’s plans to go to the United Nations with the intention of bringing the occupation to The Hague, which was a very powerful weapon in the Palestinians’ hands. Further, his decision to negotiate with Israel put a damper on the boycott movement, which was finally beginning to frighten this country’s leaders.

So at the outset of the talks, it seems Abbas gave considerable ground in defending the national interest – the goal of independence – in return for the release of prisoners, substantial economic aid, and the expectation of some relief from the strictures and indignities of Israeli rule.

Was it a good compromise? I think the only way to judge that will be at the end, when it becomes clear whether Abbas has agreed, under Israeli/U.S. pressure, to abandon the goal of independence, or whether he has held onto it.

Again, maybe I’m being optimistic, but it seems to me that even if Abbas could be strongarmed into agreeing to the sort of Swiss cheese, defenseless municipality encircled by the IDF and without a capital in Jerusalem – which is all that Bibi’s talking about – the Palestinians at home wouldn’t accept it; they would rebel. The Muslim world wouldn’t accept it, either.

So I don’t see that Bibi can “defeat” the Palestinians at the negotiating table, even if Abbas were weak enough to let him. And I don’t see Bibi coming anywhere close to a deal that Abbas, with the Palestinians and Muslim world watching him, could accept. Netanyahu actually intends to try to get this man to sign an agreement that gives him less than what he already turned down five years ago from Olmert.  No, this thing is doomed. And since it is, there’s no reason why Abbas shouldn’t emerge at the end with his goal of independence intact – and in the meanwhile he will have gained the release of prisoners, economic aid and possibly a little more freedom for his people. Who knows – maybe he’ll even come out looking more reasonable than Bibi and his lunatic government, which would help the Palestinians on the international front, giving a boost to the resumption of the UN strategy and the boycott movement.

The talks start in Washington tonight. Doomed though they are, the question of which way they go is awfully important.