The Netanyahu government has broken with a principle fought over by all previous governments, the principle of direct talks with the Palestinians as the only path to a peace accord. By accepting the Arab League's permission for Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority chairman, to open US-mediated indirect peace talks with Israel for a four-month trial period, debkafile's Middle East sources report prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has opened a hazardous door: Renouncing the principle of direct negotiations, he has accepted the internationalization of peace diplomacy and relegated crucial decisions to the twenty-six Arab League members, the Europeans and the United Nations, a coalition which is far from friendly to Israel's case.
The details of the Arab League's March 3 decision have not all been released, but its first words are neither neutral or objective: “Although far from convinced that Israel is serious, the committee [of Arab foreign ministers] is resolved to give indirect talks a chance as a final effort to facilitate the US role.”
The attitude inherent in this decision is that, while nothing much is expected from Israel, the Arab League is doing Washington a favor for the last time.
Chief among the unpublished clauses of its decision, debkafile's sources report, is one stating that
notwithstanding the proximity talks on peace, Arab League members are committed to intensifying their campaign to isolate Israel in the international arena and in world organizations, including the UN and its various bodies, such as UNESCO and the World Health Organization, as well as international courts.
Arab League secretary Amr Mussa heads this campaign.
Still, the Obama and Netanyahu administrations have strangely expressed satisfaction with the basic Arab decision and set aside the anti-Israel sentiments it embodies.
Washington gave Netanyahu little time to ponder. Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrives Saturday night, March 6, to kick off the new US peace shuttle, followed two days later by vice president Joe Biden. They will all make sure to keep the Israeli government on track.
On the Palestinian side, debkafile's sources note that Mahmoud Abbas has departed from his movement's straight and narrow, even more than the Israeli prime minister. By accepting the Arab League's aegis, he has revolted against the principle of independent Palestinian decision-making and destiny laid down by Yasser Arafat as his cornerstone when he founded the Fatah movement in 1965.
Arafat regarded Arab interference in Palestinian affairs as destructive to the Palestinian identity of self and harmful to its national interests. Forty-five years later, Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, is turning the clock back and hitching Palestinian destiny to the Arab cart at a time when the grouping is bitterly divided and lacking real political clout.
His action is likely to provoke extreme opposition in the PLO ruling council and Fatah central committee and demands to water down the Arab League's resolution.
While Abu Mazen is acting out his brand-feature as a weak leader whom everyone must prop up, Netanyahu's rationale for accepting proximity peace talks in these circumstances is harder to divine, despite his dogged insistence on a desire for peace diplomacy. Strangely, he appears to bear no grudge against Abbas for snubbing him for more than a year.
But most of all, it is hard to see how this framework can produce any substantial outcome.
For one thing, there are too many cooks stirring the broth.
For another, even assuming that next week, Mitchell gets started on the US shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the Palestinian side faithful to its habitual negotiating tactics will kick around any Israeli or American proposal or concession for a while, before bringing it for approval before an Arab League body. Passing contentious issues between Israel and the Palestinians to the Arab League for constructive arbitration is tantamount to a death sentence for the entire process, because its automatic response will be to send back any Israeli concession as inadequate and demand more.
This back-and-forth cycle will eventually grind all the parties down and lead the process into the sand.
It will be further hampered by a powerful Arab League faction, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar and Yemen, speaking for Tehran rather than the Palestinians, with no interest in Washington's success.
Elements of the United Nations, the European Union, the Russians and the Chinese share the desire to minimize America's role in the Middle East and its peace process and dictate their own solutions.
The first signs of rival scrambling for position were apparent Thursday, March 4, when Washington's announcement of the Mitchell mission was quickly followed by the word that Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would land in the region next week and the Middle East Quartet (the US, the EU, the UN and Russia) would convene in Moscow in two weeks.
The Obama administration can be understood for despairing of the Israel-Palestinian headache and letting the hot potato pass to the Arabs and the Europeans who are more inclined to bulldoze Israel than America. Netanyahu will be taught a lesson for rejecting US initiatives.
Abbas can be understood for shunting the burden on himself and the Palestinians over to the Arab world at large.
It is much harder to understand the Israeli prime minister's willingness to entrust the most crucial decisions for his country's future and security to the largely hostile Arab League.