Blame Game on the Horizon

Abbas is no Arafat; once this becomes apparent to all, the finger-pointing-fest will begin.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on August 31, 2010.)

This time it’s not going to be deja vu. The negotiations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, promoted and orchestrated by Barack Obama, will not be anything like the negotiations that took place during sixteen years, successively, between Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, on the Israeli side, and Yasser Arafat. Arafat had the support of almost all Palestinians, and had every right to represent them.

But no less important, Arafat had the power to enforce any agreements that he made. There was only the question of whether he truly was seeking to arrive at a peace agreement with Israel. By now, thanks to the concessions egregiously offered by Barak at Camp David 10 years ago, concessions that were rejected by Arafat, we know that although he had the power to reach a peace agreement with Israel, that was not his goal.

With Mahmoud Abbas, it is an entirely different story. He does not have the backing of all Palestinians, not even of most of them. As far as Hamas is concerned, he has no right to represent the Palestinians in the upcoming negotiations. Even in Judea and Samaria, the extent of the support he enjoys among Palestinians is questionable. But most important, he does not have the authority to carry out any agreement he might arrive at with Netanyahu. He is fully aware of this, and that is probably the explanation for his reluctance to enter the negotiations, to which he has been dragged, kicking and screaming every inch of the way, by the president of the United States.

The Palestinians know this. The Israelis, who know the Palestinian scene well, understand this. It is hard to believe that the Americans do not know this. Maybe Obama thinks that money will be the answer – that enough financial support for Abbas will eventually provide him with both the legitimacy and authority he lacks.

Money already fills the pockets of the Palestinians in Abbas’ court, but it is no substitute for the support that he does not have among his people. Arafat could have made peace with Israel, but he did not want to. Abbas may or might not want to conclude a peace with Israel, but he cannot.

So what is happening here? Is this an oriental version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? How far will these negotiations proceed before someone declares that “the emperor is naked!”? Actually, it seems pretty clear that before that occurs, the negotiations will turn into a blame game. No one will want to accept the blame for the talks’ failure. Everyone will try to lay the blame at someone else’s door. And it won’t be a children’s game. Getting stuck with the blame for the failure of such highly advertised negotiations can have serious political consequences.

Should Obama end up with the blame, it would be a blow just at a time when his popularity is in decline. To top off a series of mistaken moves vis-a-vis the Middle East with negotiations that he in effect forced on the participants, which in turn led to no more than anger and frustration, could be seen as a serious error of judgment on his part.

Abbas was advised by many Palestinians not to enter these negotiations. The American largesse and American pressure that have brought him to the negotiating table have made him look like an American puppet. And a failure at that same table is not going to improve his stature in the eyes of his people.

As for Netanyahu, his critics are only waiting to pounce on him and accuse of him of never having been sincere in his talk about reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. His coalition may get shaken up a bit. And those throughout the world who engage in Israel-bashing will find in a failure of the talks grist for the mill.

Making sure they don’t get stuck with the blame for the failure and coming out ahead in the “blame game” may be the primary goal of the participants in the negotiations. It looks like, in addition to the preparations for the negotiations that are presently under way in Jerusalem, serious thought must be given to the tactics to be employed in the “blame game” that, no doubt, will accompany every step of the negotiations. As Netanyahu assembles his team for the Washington talks, he might do worse than to ask Prof. Robert Aumann, Israel’s world renowned expert in game theory, to join the team.

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