Skip to main content

Israel, Abbas face 5 realities on peace

By Aaron David Miller
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 2336 GMT (0736 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: Abbas to meet with Obama, but he won't be able to deliver his side of peace deal
  • He says Abbas backs off Palestinian negotiating points at his peril; Netanyahu won't yield
  • He says fractious Palestinians impede any deal, plus Obama taken up by Ukraine, midterms
  • Miller: Parties don't want to subvert Kerry process, but Abbas visit won't move needle

(CNN) -- Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President who will sit with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday to discuss the state—and the fate--of Secretary of State John Kerry's peace process is a good man and most likely the best partner for peace negotiations that Washington, this Israeli government or any other is likely to have. He's rational, enlightened and a leader who eschews both violence and the dream that somehow, sometime, the armed struggle, or demography will deliver Palestinians their state.

But there's only one pesky problem: Under current circumstances, he cannot deliver his side of a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel.

Here's why.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

The Palestinian consensus

Abbas is in a bind. He's trapped by traditional Palestinian negotiating positions and a narrative that is almost impossible to alter. These positions include: June 1967 borders with minor territorial adjustments, a capital in East Jerusalem, security arrangements that don't suck every bit of sovereignty out of Palestinian statehood, and an acceptable answer to the question of what to do about the volatile issue of "right of return."

To diverge significantly from them would end his political viability and perhaps his life. Even the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat—whose power, authority and legitimacy conferred some discretion and flexibility-- wouldn't agree to anything short of this consensus. I once heard Arafat remark, at the Camp David Summit: You won't walk behind my coffin. And Abbas has little of Arafat's street cred. He is head of the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee, but is master of none.

Not enough urgency

The idea that you could reconcile this Palestinian consensus with Benjamin Netanyahu's bottom lines—assuming you could identify them-- is fantastical. And his self-image is not to become the midwife or father of a Palestinian state based on Abbas' requirements or needs; it is to water them down with U.S. help. Even then the idea that he's prepared to yield to Abbas on borders or Jerusalem is highly improbable.

The history of peacemaking on the Israeli side is, to be sure, a history of transformed hawks (see Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert). But Netanyahu is different, and circumstances have changed. The region is in turmoil, and Iran is his real priority. There is neither enough pain nor prospect of gain for him to urgently make this deal.

Israel, Palestinians to intensify talks
Kerry responds to backlash over comments
Kerry boycott comments draw ire
Has Obama admin. changed on Syria?

Divided Palestinians

Hamas has been greatly weakened. The ouster of Egypt's Mohammed Morsy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's troubles and Hamas' need to distance itself from Syria have blocked its options. But, between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian national movement is still badly divided and resembles a kind of Palestinian Noah's Ark: There are two of everything: statelets, security services, patrons, constitutions and visions of what Palestine is and even where it is.

The real problem is that any reconciliation of the two factions will likely further harden Palestinian positions, creating a "tradeoff": internal peace in the Palestinian ranks but more tension with Israel, and probably the United States, too. And yet, unless the Palestinians find a way to assume control over the forces of violence in Palestine -- in short, one authority and one gun -- it's hard to see how Israel, even if it could be persuaded to withdraw from the West Bank on paper, would ever do so in practice.

The Obama administration understandably cannot deal with the Hamas issue now. Instead, it seems to subscribe to the "Field of Dreams" school of diplomacy: If you build it, they will come. According to this logic, an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would leave an already weakened Hamas no choice but to put up or shut up. The only problem is that for that to work, the "it" that they build would have to be an agreement so compelling that the vast majority of Palestinians would rally around it. That's very hard to see now.

No help from Obama

The President would like to be a historic peacemaker. And he made clear in his 2012 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that he is very frustrated with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But to have a fight with this Israeli Prime Minister over the possibility of a long-shot Israeli-Palestinian deal doesn't add up. A productive fight with Israel that ends up producing a historic peace deal where everyone wins is one thing. But right now that deal is nowhere in sight.

Indeed, right now Obama's priorities are Ukraine, Iran, preserving a domestic legacy and maintaining Democratic control of the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections. He has little incentive or capacity to forcefully press Netanyahu for a deal.

People may think that a second-term president freed from the need for re-election is free to take a big gamble. But it has really never been the absence of political constraints as much as it is the presence of real opportunity that drives presidents. Obama doesn't want to fail.

No cause for alarm?

The odds of a conflict-ending agreement between Netanyahu and Abbas in which the core issues that drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are resolved are slim to none. Think outcomes, not solutions.

But this isn't a cause for despair. Kerry's relentlessness and skill in engaging the parties have created a process that will at least survive the U.S.-imposed April deadline for a peace deal and live at least until year's end. Nobody wants to be blamed for the demise of the Kerry process, and both Netanyahu and Abbas likely wonder--and worry about--what will happen if there is no process.

Israel probably doesn't have a Plan B. And Abbas' fallback -- to go to the United Nations and rely on the international community and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement -- doesn't offer much promise without Washington pressuring Israel.

And so Abbas' meeting at the White House will go well enough. The President deeply cares about the Palestinians and their cause. And while Abbas won't betray Palestinian positions for Obama's legacy, neither will he humiliate the President. Kerry may yet squeeze out enough from the two sides to produce a piece of paper.

In any event, it won't be the Palestinians who spoil the party. President Abbas will almost certainly tell the President, paper or not, deadline be damned, let us continue the important work of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Peace may not be around the corner, but more negotiations almost certainly are.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT