Looks like we will know very soon whether the Palestinians are really prepared to show up and whether Netanyahu is ready to call Abbas’ bluff? With so little to lose, Bibi has been acting like he is ready to go into the ring with the Palestinians. On Monday evening both sides may actually sit down face to face for the first time in four years. While the two scheduled days of meetings—it could drag on longer–are reported to be strictly organizational, in may well be a beginning.
There are several signs to keep in mind in watching matters unfold. Secretary Kerry got the parties to leave the region and come to Washington. Travel is not an enormous factor in 2013, but it is not a car or helicopter ride after sleeping in one’s own bed. The Secretary forced the parties to make the gesture and travel to Washington, a much more symbolic indication to Palestinian leadership, Hamas, and the Arab League, than it is for Israel’s establishment. While the meetings are only scheduled to begin in Washington, then to continue in the region based on procedural agreements reached in Washington, this permits Kerry to show some progress and success; albeit nothing yet of substance.
Despite agreeing to return Palestinian prisoners from before the Oslo period—including some with much Jewish blood on their hands–Netanyahu appears basically also to have called the bluff of his own Likud Party Members. Whether Bibi actually thinks this will work or not; whether it will just be another Palestinian bluff; whether he believes the Palestinians will bargain until the end and then walk away as did Arafat at Camp David; or whether Bibi believes this could actually move to an end game, he has a ministerial agreement upon which to fall back. Any agreements will be submitted for a popular referendum.
Netanyahu knows that just as there will much rough sledding ahead for the Palestinians—internally—on matters involving refugees, right of return, borders, and Jerusalem, he will also have to address settlement dismantling, military presence, borders, and Jerusalem. The real test, however, will come for both Abbas and Netanyahu in the political realm. Will Abbas be able to sell an agreement to the Palestinians—or be removed from office? Will Bibi be able to sell an agreement and not lose his coalition? For Abbas as well, assuming he can take an agreement to the end, there is a question as to whether he will physically survive reaching an agreement?
There is a need to note one finally logistical issue. Assuming the D.C. meetings proceed well enough to move to the next stage of meetings in the region, both sides could reopen or reconsider any and all decisions reached in Washington. This type of circus has happened before and would force the entire negotiations back to square one, with both sides playing the “blame game”.