For the first time since the Oslo peace process started 18 years ago, Palestinian leaders are openly refusing to negotiate with the government of Israel, and U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is doing very little about it. As Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, explained the policy on Dec. 9, "We will not agree to negotiate as long as settlement building continues." The Arab League is backing Abbas in this refusal, says League chief Amr Moussa, because "the direction of talks has become ineffective and it has decided against the resumption of negotiations."
But Abbas himself negotiated with seven previous Israeli prime ministers without such preconditions. For 17 years -- from the Madrid conference of October 1991 through Abbas's negotiations with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which ended in 2008 -- negotiations moved forward while Jerusalem construction continued. Madrid, Oslo I, Oslo II, the Hebron Protocol, the Wye River Memorandum, Camp David, Taba, the disengagement from Gaza, and Olmert's offer to Abbas -- all these events over the course of two decades were made possible by a continuing agreement to disagree about Israeli construction of Jewish homes in Jewish neighborhoods outside the pre-1967 line in East Jerusalem. But now, peace talks cannot even begin. Why the change?
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledges that the Palestinians are creating a new precondition for talks to begin. Settlements, she says, have "always been an issue within the negotiations.… There's never been a precondition." But Clinton has not stated any public objection to Abbas making this a new excuse not to negotiate.
Abbas himself blames Obama. As he said in November, "At first, President Obama stated in Cairo that Israel must stop all construction activities in the settlements. Could we demand less than that?" Some in the West are sympathetic to Abbas's maneuver, which they see as a form of protest against an Israeli policy to which the United States and the rest of the Middle East quartet, the four international players that steer peace efforts, also object. But when the Palestinians spurn negotiations, they are blocking the sole path to a solution of the settlement issue, which can only be a negotiated agreement over borders. As the State Department spokesman's said on Aug. 2, "Absent a direct negotiation, there will be no end to the conflict, there will be no peace agreement, and there will be no Palestinian state. That's a fact."
There is also the question of whether Abbas's motive here is actually about the settlement issue, or rather to drive a wedge between Obama and Israel and induce the United States to impose a solution in lieu of negotiations. Isn't this a reversion to the pre-Oslo strategy of rejecting contact with Israel and demanding instead that the great powers impose Arab terms on the Jewish state?