Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was riding a well-trodden path when he told Israel's Channel 10 television on Tuesday, December 28, that if the Palestinians were serious about peace, he was ready to "go all the way." But if talks hit a brick wall over Jerusalem and the right of return [for 1948 refugees], he was in favor of going for an interim accord.
Netanyahu made this comment the day after debkafile's sources in Washington and Jerusalem quoted high-ranking Palestinian sources as reporting that the Obama administration had gone back on prior commitments to them on key negotiating issues. Then, on Wednesday, Dec. 29, the State Department rejected Palestinian moves to obtain UN Security Council recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, asserting that "the final status issue can only be addressed in direct negotiations."
On the quiet, meanwhile, Washington was feeling out allies on how they felt about turning to an Interim accord as a more realistic prospect for bringing the two sides together for a deal by the end of 2011 than a final-status agreement. It would provide a Palestinian state with temporary borders and leave the deeply disputed core issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees and water distribution, for another day.
Netanyahu was therefore not talking out of his hat.
Palestinians feel the chill from Washington
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report Barack Obama quietly sought the endorsement of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron for this policy switch. He is awaiting the European powers' response. But meanwhile, Moscow has indicated it might go along with this modified aim.
Any partial peace accord has been consistently and utterly rejected by the Palestinians. They have been campaigning for their state to win international recognition as a way of getting around the need for negotiating with Israel or deferring to US-sponsored diplomacy.
One of the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas's spokesmen, Nabil Abu Rudeina, declared Tuesday, Dec. 28, that an interim accord was not an option.
But by Wednesday, Ramallah was beginning to backtrack.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denied reports published in Ramallah that morning of PA plans to urgently solicit a UN resolution recognizing a Palestinian state within pre-1967 War borders and endorsing the 1948 Palestinian refugees' right of return to their former homes inside Israel.
Sensing the new winds blowing in from Washington, Erekat added that any Palestinian application to the UN would not refer to statehood, only the condemnation of Israeli settlements and the continued construction therein.
Palestinian leaders complain they are confronted with more than one Washington reversal:
1. The Obama administration is unwilling to publicly endorse the 2007 pledge by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a future Palestinian state to rise within boundaries '"very close to the 1967 borders" in a final-status accord with Israel.
Abbas may lose slice of aid by refusing to sit down with Israel
2. The US president's former national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones promised that an American or a combined US-NATO force would secure the Palestinian state's borders with Israel and Jordan. Washington now points to the mounting security risks posed by Iran as a compelling reason for Israeli military elements to remain on the West Bank as part of the international force.
3. Washington insists that Abbas must stop pushing for a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood within 1967 borders and urging Latin American governments to extend recognition, after it was obtained from Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.
The Palestinians therefore feel they are on shifting ground.
But they are realistic, a senior US diplomat told our Washington sources: They know that opposition to the new administration policy may cost them dear in the form of a slowdown in the flow of aid funds to the PA.
Holding back just half a billion dollars out of the $3 billion allotted them every year would bring down the regime headed by Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Another American bureaucrat was even blunter. Expressing Washington's impatience with the Palestinian Authority, he said: The Ramallah regime is flimsier than a house of cards; it’s made out of greenbacks. When the dollars and euros stop rolling in, the house will fall down – and no one there wants to see that happen.
Despite the signs of impatience in Washington, this sentiment is not the last word on administration policy. It is quite possibly an arm-twisting exercise to force Abbas' return to the negotiating table with Israel.
But if he continues to dig his heels in against the talks and stands by his demand for construction to be frozen first on the West Bank and in Jerusalem – a bargaining position derided as inept by Saudi Arabia, Syria and other Arab regimes – the Americans may well lose patience altogether and make the exercise a permanent feature of their new policy.