Today's top news story is not much of a shocker though I am sure it will make waves in the international press. Reuters is reporting that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will reject direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, citing the lack of progress in indirect talks as his reason for refusal.
Indeed, little to no progress has been made in indirect negotiations, which have been ongoing intermittently since Netanyahu first announced a partial slowing of settlement building in the West Bank in November 2009. The "freeze" is set to expire on September 25 and with many of the more conservative members of his government rallying against any extension of the moratorium, Netanyahu will be hard pressed to extend the freeze without noticeable progress toward direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
As Ethan Bronner pointed out several weeks ago, the settlement "freeze" has not had any noticeable effect on building, dozens of Israeli settlements are in violation of the freeze as they continue to build, and Mahmoud Abbas once again seems poised to gain nothing from joining the Israelis and Americans in futile negotiation - further damaging his credibility.
For its part, the Obama administration has warned Mr. Abbas that his failure to accept direct negotiations could lead to the U.S. abandoning it's already laughably tepid opposition to Israeli settlement building, demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and the continued Egyptian/Israeli blockade of Gaza.
With midterm elections here in the United States just months away it is unlikely the Obama administration will have the stomach or courage to pressure Israel to extend the current freeze or expand it to include East Jerusalem. Benjamin Netanyahu has also been adamant that Israel will not accept Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, a major must-have for Palestinian negotiators. Without the possibility of establishing their capital in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians will never negotiate directly, unless there are very real benefits to be gained from the Americans. Those benefits are simply not available from an American administration that, quite frankly, has much bigger fish to fry, both at home and abroad.
Netanyahu has blamed the Palestinians for the current impasse, insisting that they have insisted on unacceptable preconditions: that the negotiations focus on the 1967 lines as a starting point for borders, the extension of the settlement freeze during the course of such negotiations, and that the division of Jerusalem be on the table.
The freeze will expire in just two months and the distance between the two sides is long, with a busy American administration unable to spend precious political capital to close the gap. Even if the Obama administration was able to become more involved to make sure direct negotiations happened it's highly unlikely it would have any measurable effect on the midterm elections. Netanyahu is a master politician, and do not believe for a second he did not at least recognize the timeframe for the settlement freeze expiration would coincide with a tough midterm election.
I am usually hesitant to make predictions on this blog, but I feel fairly confident on this one: No direct negotiations will happen and many Western governments will express their disappointment with the situation, though few will singularly blame Abbas as the Israeli government will hope. The Americans will insure at the very least that indirect negotiations continue even as the settlement freeze expires as a way to save face for both Abbas and Obama and to avoid the perception that the peace process has totally collapsed, which it already did almost 10 years ago. Everything since Camp David has been, sadly, mostly smoke and mirrors.
It's a sad, unavoidable fact that nearly a decade has been wasted.
Palestinians in greater numbers are likely to abandon the two-state solution and begin to advocate for a binational, one-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Only time will tell if that will be any more successful than the two-state peace process has been.