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The Mideast blame game

When Secretary of State James Baker was organizing the Madrid peace conference in 1991, he resorted to a device he called the dead cat on the doorstep. Simply put, Baker threatened to publicly blame Israeli, Palestinian and Syrian leaders if they didn’t accept the terms and attend the conference.
It worked.

Ironically, the dead-cat routine also explains the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — but in reverse.
The story today isn’t about an American threatening Israelis and Palestinians if they don’t get serious about negotiations. These days, everybody is maneuvering to ensure that someone else takes the blame when the dust settles after the mini-crisis at the United Nations next month.

For some time, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has had nothing to do with getting to a serious negotiation. That’s because no one in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington believes that an agreement, let alone one to end the conflict, is possible now.

There was a brief moment at the beginning of the Obama administration when Israelis and Palestinians were excited about a new president who seemed prepared to marshal the toughness, reassurance and commitment required to broker a negotiated agreement. But nobody believes that anymore.

What is still important to Israelis and Palestinians, however, is ensuring that responsibility for the potential debacle following the Palestinians’ statehood initiative is placed on somebody else. President Obama, too, is ready to play the blame game. Even if the administration manages to preempt the initiative by selling a formula to relaunch negotiations or getting both sides to acquiesce in a statement through the “Quartet,” nobody wants to risk making decisions that could produce an actual agreement. Making a point is a lot easier than making a difference.

For Palestinians, this phase of the peace process isn’t about getting to the table with this Israeli government. So Palestinians have switched from discussions with the Israelis and Americans — a bi/trilateral arena in which their influence is limited — to the international stage, where they have more sway.

They understand that upgrading their status from non-member observer entity to non-member observer state (like the Vatican) would be much better than interminable talks with the Israelis. They know that a U.N. resolution recognizing the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as sovereign Palestinian territory and as a state might give them more leverage, solidify an international consensus against Israel and possibly even put them in a position to threaten legal sanctions since all Israeli actions in the West Bank might be interpreted as violating the sovereignty of the new Palestine.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process. He is the author of “The Much Too Promised Land.”

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