A couple of weeks ago, President Barack Obama laid out for me his view of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's responsibilities in ongoing, and thoroughly troubled, peace talks. Though Obama hasn’t seen it necessary to publicly outline for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, what is required of him, my impression -- or my hope, at least -- is that when the two meet today at the White House, Obama will pressure Abbas to meet Netanyahu halfway on an issue of now-paramount importance to Israeli negotiators: recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Abbas is opposed to offering such recognition for two reasons. The first is that, in his mind, this would represent a kind of existential concession: If Jews indeed have a connection to Palestine, then the mainstream Palestinian Arab narrative -- that Zionism is a foreign, colonialist ideology, and not the movement of a people returning to its home -- gets blown apart. (It's astonishing that after 60 years of Israel’s existence people are still arguing about whether it is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people -- an acknowledgment that obviously does not negate the clear Arab connection to the land.) The second reason is practical: Abbas doesn’t feel he will pay a price for denying Israel this concession, or any other concession.
This is why it’s important today for Obama to act in a way that will salvage the peace talks that Secretary of State John Kerry has engineered. How? By reminding Abbas that the Palestinian narrative has survived intact even though his own organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization, has already acknowledged Israel's Jewish status.
Yasser Arafat, Abbas’s predecessor and the father of Palestinian nationalism, previously declared that Israel is a “Jewish state.” The 1988 PLO Declaration of Independence also acknowledged the legitimacy of a Jewish state in part of Palestine. Abbas, in other words, would not be setting a new precedent by conceding this point to Netanyahu. All he has to say is, “Like my predecessor, President Arafat, I too acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state.” He could leave what legal formulations need to be made until later in the negotiations.
In the coming days, if Abbas brings himself to say this, the onus will be back on Netanyahu to make material concessions. If Abbas doesn’t, the talks could collapse.
I’m fairly pessimistic about Abbas’s willingness to move forward in the negotiations. A study of his statements over the years suggests that he’s never been willing to move boldly toward compromise. In a 2009 interview with the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl and Fred Hiatt, Abbas recognized that he turned down a generous compromise offer from Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert. Diehl wrote:
Abbas acknowledged that Olmert had shown him a map proposing a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank -- though he complained that the Israeli leader refused to give him a copy of the plan. He confirmed that Olmert "accepted the principle" of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees -- something no previous Israeli prime minister had done -- and offered to resettle thousands in Israel. In all, Olmert's peace offer was more generous to the Palestinians than either that of Bush or Bill Clinton; it's almost impossible to imagine Obama, or any Israeli government, going further.
Abbas turned it down. "The gaps were wide," he said.
Netanyahu is not Olmert. He will not offer anything so generous. If Abbas was willing to turn down Olmert, it is hard to see why he would accept what Netanyahu has to give. Abbas, it is suspected, has an alternate plan: to make his case for statehood with the international community -- bypassing the direct negotiations route -- and to work for the international isolation and delegitimization of Israel. At best, this is a recipe for stasis. At worst, it will lead to violence and eventual disaster. Obama suggested to me that he doesn’t want to see this happen.
Pressuring Abbas to grapple with Netanyahu’s demand for recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews would be one way to avoid disaster. Obama has made it clear that he is willing to pressure Netanyahu on settlements, and this is appropriate -- the president has done a good job of explaining why continued settlement expansion is not in the self-interest of Israel, much less that of the Palestinians. Now Obama needs to explain to Abbas why he should publicly reiterate Arafat's position on Israel’s Jewish character and move on to the core issues separating the two sides. Obama should also make it clear to Abbas, as he has to Netanayahu, that there will be consequences if Abbas cannot bring himself to offer Kerry at least a provisional, tentative yes.
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