So who speaks for the Palestinians?
Elliot Abrams asks that question given some news out of the Middle East that has gone virtually undiscussed. You remember the recent announcement that indirect or “proximity” talks were supposed to begin soon between Israel and Palestine. Abrams says, “maybe not”. And the reason is not good news:
Two stories this week in Haaretz, the Israeli daily, make this clear. The first story recounts an interview Abbas gave Israeli TV, and notes that “Abbas said he hopes to get Arab League approval for indirect talks on May 1.” The second story recycles an item from the newspaper Al-Watan in Damascus, and begins this way: “The Arab League is expected to reject the Obama administration’s proposal to begin indirect Middle East peace negotiations in the coming weeks, sources from the 22-state body told Syria’s Al-Watan daily on Tuesday. The League’s Monitoring Committee for the Arab Peace Initiative is scheduled to meet on Saturday to vote on the proposal, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is unlikely to accept any offer for peace talks that does not meet the panel’s approval.”
Of course that changes the game pretty dramatically. If Abbas has ceded the power of the Palestinians to speak for themselves to the Arab League, it complicates any possible solution with Israel. In fact, as Abrams notes, it is a return “to the days when the Palestinians were under the control of Arab states rather than masters of their own future”. And we all know how well that’s turned out.
Second, putting the Arab League in charge magnifies the influence of bad actors. To get negotiations going, the Obama administration now has to convince not only Abbas, but Bashar al Assad. Perhaps this helps explain why George Mitchell has visited Damascus and why the administration persists in “outreach” to Syria despite its continuing evil conduct (most recently, reports of the shipment of Scud missiles to Hezbollah). Having committed itself to the “peace process,” the administration simply cannot afford to treat Syria as it deserves; Syria has too much clout now.
So now, as Abrams notes, since such countries as Syria have a say in what the Palestinians do, we have to tread more lightly than perhaps we could have prior to this little announcement. That reigns in, for instance, putting the amount of diplomatic pressure that the report of SCUDs to Hezbollah deserves.
More than anything, though, it introduces a third party to the talks which has no vested interest in seeing the peace process work. Other than Egypt and Jordan, both of which have peace treaties with Israel, the other 20 nations have demonstrated little care or desire for peace with Israel. If you thought the peace process was tough before, this little wrinkle makes it almost impossible now.