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?
In refusing to meet with Israel, Abbas is violating one of the most important commitments his predecessor Yasir Arafat made at the start of the Oslo process, which included this pledge to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Sept. 9, 1993: "The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides, and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations." It is also a direct violation of the pledge that Abbas himself made barely three years ago at the Annapolis conference. As witnessed by foreign ministers of 47 countries on Nov. 27, 2007: "We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements. We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations."
Abbas is also rejecting the imperative laid down by the Middle East "Quartet" in March 2010, demanding "the resumption, without preconditions, of direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues as previously agreed by the parties." It is a repudiation of Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who said, "We do not believe in preconditions. We do not impose them. And we urge others not to impose preconditions." It is a dismissal of an objective considered vital by the Obama administration, to "re-launch negotiations as soon as possible and without preconditions, which is in the interests of everyone in the region." Abbas is spurning all appeals from Clinton, who says that "negotiations between the parties is the only means by which all of the outstanding claims arising out of the conflict can be resolved."
But the Obama administration is raising no public objection to the Palestinians' stance. It has not expressed one word of criticism of Abbas, nor used anything resembling the pressure tactics Obama has so freely used against the Israeli side. In fact, Obama did quite the opposite on Oct. 7, when he issued a special waiver of Section 7040(a) of the Foreign Assistance Act to transfer additional funds directly to the Palestinian Authority, just as it was announcing its refusal to negotiate.
Members of Congress are starting to take notice of the administration's reticence to confront Palestinian intransigence. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman, said on Dec. 23 of Palestinian leaders: "They know they don't have to do a darn thing; with this administration they will get a blank check, and they will always get helped out.… Try examining where they're using their money and where our U.S. dollars are going." Her Democratic counterpart, California's Howard Berman, the outgoing chairman of the committee, said a few days earlier, referring to Abbas's unilateral drive to seek early recognition of Palestinian statehood, "If they try to circumvent negotiations, they'll lose the support of a lot of people like me, and it will jeopardize their foreign aid as well."
As it happens, a statute is already in place, requiring sanctions against such violations of the solemn commitments the Palestinians made. The Middle East Peace Commitments Act of 2002 notes that "Resolution of all outstanding issues in the conflict between the two sides through negotiations" is one of the core commitments to which the Palestinian Authority has obligated itself, and it requires the president to notify Congress of such violations and impose penalties, which may include a "prohibition on United States assistance to the West Bank and Gaza." When it returns to Washington this month, the new Congress may not share Obama's reluctance to criticize Abbas. With the support of Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the new House in particular may be willing to do something about it.
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He is now director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum.