Not right now, they don't.
The Palestinians have all the leverage, a former top State Department specialist on the Mideast peace process recently told me over red wine in Tel Aviv. "I'm not sure they'll ever sign on the dotted line." In that moment of candor -- lubricated no doubt by the Golan Heights cabernet -- the ex-bureaucrat admitted something U.S. President Barack Obama's administration would never concede publicly: The Palestinians are under little to no pressure to sign a final peace agreement with Israel.
The consensus among right-thinking people, of course, is that self-determination is the incentive par excellence for Palestinian leaders to strike a deal. That was the view Obama articulated on Feb. 27, four days before he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that more than anything else, the Palestinians seek "the dignity of a state." Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the "dignity" talking point on March 3 at the pro-Israel policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
But if the Palestinians are desperately seeking a negotiated settlement that grants them a state of their own, they're certainly hiding it well. In July, Kerry announced an ill-advised nine-month deadline for delivering Middle East peace. That gestation period is nearly complete, but there doesn't seem to be a bun in Washington's oven. Undeterred, the administration is making a final push: Netanyahu visited the Oval Office on March 3, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas set to follow on March 17. If, however, Kerry and Obama are to succeed where their predecessors have all failed, they will have to fundamentally reassess their policy toward the Palestinians.
It's actually the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who are under pressure from all corners to reach a peace deal. Obama often reminds the Israelis that time is working against them, as high Palestinian birthrates could mean that the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River will have an Arab majority before long. For his part, Kerry warns Israel that the threat of boycotts and delegitimization is growing. The European Union, meanwhile, has set new guidelines against its funds going to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and it is considering labeling goods that originate there. The United Nations has declared 2014 the "International Year of Solidarity With the Palestinian People."
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are watching from the sidelines with glee. As one Palestinian negotiator told an Israeli official during a spate of terrorist attacks a decade ago, "Victory for us is to see you suffer." Viewers of the Palestinian Authority's official television station are unceasingly reminded that the Arab-Israeli conflict is an existential, zero-sum dispute. The channel assures its audience that cities in Israel will ultimately return to Arab rule, that the murder of Israeli civilians is a heroic deed, and that Jews are "barbaric monkeys, wretched pigs" -- or in the words of putatively peace-minded Palestinian Authority official Jibril Rajoub, "Satans" and "Zionist sons of bitches." And that's not to speak of the fire-eyed theocrats of Hamas, who run the show in the Gaza Strip.
It's inconceivable that Palestinian leaders, watching Israel squirm under unprecedented international pressure, would allow the Jewish state to rehabilitate its image as peace-seeker. Instead, they recognize that after the peace talks' inevitable failure, the Jewish state will be faced with only bad options. If Israel maintains the status quo, international pressure upon it can only grow. If it unilaterally withdraws from all or part of the West Bank, it will almost certainly face the same rocket attacks that followed its last two withdrawals -- from Gaza in 2005 and from south Lebanon in 2000. This time, however, the rockets will be aimed at Tel Aviv and its international airport. The Palestinian Authority will then argue that it can't be blamed for the security breakdown, because it was not consulted in carrying out the withdrawal.
The Obama administration seems determined not to contemplate the idea that the Palestinians habitually choose Israeli occupation over independence. But we've seen this show before: In 2000, Israel offered to dismantle more than 60 settlements, withdraw from 92 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, share the prickliest areas of Jerusalem's Old City, and grant the Palestinians a capital in the city's eastern areas. Some 100,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants would be allowed to move within Israel's borders. Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinians' leader, turned down the offer without making one of his own and then gave tacit or explicit sanction to the Second Intifada, an outburst of bombings and shootings that killed more than 1,000 Israelis over several years.
Between 2006 and 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Abbas 36 times, giving even more concessions -- offering some 95 percent of the West Bank, with swaps of land in Israel to bring the exchange to 100 percent, and a fund for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Abbas walked away. As Olmert lamented in 2013, "I am still waiting for a phone call."
Is Abbas as toxic as Arafat, the unreformed terrorist? No. Is he Palestine's version of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, ready to turn his sword into a ploughshare and lock hands on the White House lawn? Not a chance.
Abbas may have realized that Israel, to use Obama's words, "is not going anywhere." Sadly, he has obdurately refused to pass on the memo to his people -- in Arabic, he continues to feed them the fantasy of a wholesale "right of return" of millions of Arabs to Israel that no Israeli leader will ever allow. In 2012, he conceded to an Israeli journalist that he would return to his Galilee hometown of Safed only as a tourist -- but quickly walked back his comments after the resulting uproar. Having thus primed his people, Abbas predictably finds that there is virtually no Palestinian constituency for a realistic peace deal.
That's why Shlomo Avineri, an octogenarian Israeli peacenik and former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, can write in the dovish daily Haaretz: "Don't expect Abbas to sign anything." That's why, this week, Abbas's underlings reacted to Netanyahu's AIPAC speech -- a veritable olive branch, by his standards -- with canned outrage. Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thundered Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath, is "totally rejected" and "contravene[s] all the rules of the peace negotiations."
None of this is to suggest that Israel is blameless. Israel could have avoided many, though not all, of its current predicaments by not having embarked on the West Bank settlement enterprise in the first place -- at least not in areas distant from Israel proper and heavily inhabited by Palestinians. The enterprise has been damaging to Israel because it obscures the fact that Palestinians still overwhelmingly reject the Jewish state to begin with and because it gives the Palestinians a plausible pretext for endlessly deferring difficult decisions. In other words, it gives them nearly limitless leverage.
So what is to be done? The good news is that the United States does have ways to influence the Palestinians to negotiate seriously -- if only it is willing to use them. Washington is the single biggest donor to the Palestinian Authority, and thus Congress could condition U.S. aid on stopping all that monkeys-and-devils incitement (two such initiatives are currently in the first stages of legislation). The United States could also offer significant aid boosts to the Palestinians if they make tangible steps toward peace, and threaten corresponding cutbacks if they fail to do so.
Such a policy will ultimately benefit the Palestinians more than anyone. Washington, as well as the world, does them no favors in forever excusing their failure to better their lot and in painting them as a people always acted upon but never acting. The Palestinian leadership currently has no incentive to make a deal -- but in the interest of peace, that can and must change.
Photo: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images