Abba Eban, the loquacious and articulate Cambridge-educated Israeli foreign minister once famously remarked that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. That certainly seemed to be the case in 2000-2001when Yasser Arafat walked away from Bill Clinton’s peace proposals, first at Camp David and then at Taba. It may have again been the case when Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) did not seize upon roughly similar proposals put to him by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
More recently, however, many analysts have also applied Eban’s dictum to the Israelis themselves. Despite protestations to the contrary by Israel’s supporters, there is much truth to the fact that Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon did little to enhance Abu Mazen’s standing when the latter took over the PA and PLO upon Arafat’s passing. Had Sharon, for example, released one thousand prisoners in honor of Abbas’ presidency—something he had been prepared to do on other occasions—it is arguable that the Palestinian might have felt far more empowered to strike the deal that Arafat could not face.
The Obama administration also missed some opportunities. Thinking that he could win the plaudits of the Arab world by bullying the Israelis into concessions over construction in Jewish areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem—something about which the Palestinians themselves had not been especially fussy—Obama merely united doubting Israelis behind Bibi Netanyahu. Snubbing the Israeli Prime Minster at the White House only made matters worse. Ultimately, Obama was only able to win a temporary settlement freeze from the wily Israeli leader. Obama then proposed indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, again something for which Abu Mazen had never pressed, thereby setting back relations between the two sides some two decades.
Having finally come to grips with reality, the Obama administration is now preparing to foster the resumption of direct talks in early September, when Netanyahu, Abu Mazen, King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are all invited to the White House. Everyone knows what the basic components of a deal are: withdrawal from most of the West Bank; retention by Israel of key settlement blocs comprising most of the settler population in exchange for Israeli territory inside the Green Line; de facto renunciation of the Palestinian right of return in exchange for financial support for refugees; and the cession of part of East Jerusalem (notably areas that Jews rarely visit and excluding the Jewish Quarter) to the Palestinians. The question now, as before, is which side will miss the opportunity to finalize the deal.
Abu Mazen has significant incentives to accept the deal: the West Bank is thriving thanks to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s careful management of the economy, even as Hamas-led Gaza continues to flounder. Sealing a deal would enable the PA to draw upon even more international financial resources, offer security for the citizens of the West Bank, and, most important, give Palestinians a state of their own with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Netanyahu likewise has incentives: Israel has become increasingly isolated, economically as well as politically. It no longer is an agricultural economy; its high tech sector critically depends on trade with the rest of the world. A peace deal would halt and reverse that isolation; halt and reverse the steady brain drain of Israelis to the West; and increase foreign investment beyond its current record levels. A deal would also allow Israel to focus on the ever increasing gap between rich and poor, among the widest among the world’s developed economies.
So, will the deal happen? Never forget that these talks offer yet another opportunity to be missed. As the scorpion told the frog that had carried it on his back when it stung the poor amphibian mid-river, thereby sentencing them both to death, “after all, this is the Middle East.” Hopefully, the scorpions on both sides will finally realize that sinking mid-river is not the preferred option.