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The Break-Up

Mahmoud Abbas has only himself to blame for his failed presidency.

Click here to read Steven A. Cook on why we should expect the Palestinians to launch a third intifada.

Israeli officials and experts were initially reacting to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's promise not to seek re-election in one of three ways: They believed him and didn’t really care; they believed him and worried about the possible vacuum following his disappearance from the political scene; or they didn’t believe him. Last week, the third option seemed to be the most common read in Jerusalem. Abbas is bluffing, the reasoning goes, in the hope of getting more sympathy from the international community, making Israel more prone to concessions, and forcing a nervous American administration to pressure Israel some more.

Despite contentions that his "decision is not for negotiation or maneuver," there were numerous signs that is precisely what he is doing. Abbas hasn’t said he is going to resign his role as chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization or as the head of the Fatah movement. If he keeps these positions for himself, the position of president becomes of less importance--even in the case that someone else gets it. And since Palestinian elections aren't likely to happen any time soon, Abbas doesn't have to be "re-elected" to stay in charge. It’s revealing that Fatah is not even looking for substitutes yet. "We won't search for replacements for President Abbas," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said last week.

But recent days’ events have caused some Israelis observers to scratch their heads. Can he seriously mean it? With every passing day, with every added combative statement, with every blow to his stated goal--not even Europe agreed to endorse the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state--they’ve realized that if Abbas didn’t initially mean it, he might be reaching a point where there’s no turning back.

Abbas has certainly succeeded in attracting sympathy. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Palestinian cities calling him to stay, as have dignitaries such as Quartet Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair and Israeli President Shimon Peres. Such pleas don’t come because Abbas is such a brilliant leader, but because of fear of the expected void in the unlikely case he really goes. It’s a serious concern: The collapse of the Palestinian Authority would definitely pose a problem to Israel and the international community.

But Abbas’s promise not to run is unlikely to solve his underlying challenges--and he largely has himself to blame. While the Americans and Israelis were finally reaching an agreement on a partial settlement freeze at the trilateral meeting this past September in New York, Abbas refused to admit that a total freeze was no longer a viable option. He continued his intransigence in a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi. And this past Wednesday, in a public appearance marking the five years that have passed since the death of Yasser Arafat, Abbas vowed, yet again, that he will not go back to negotiating with Israel "without a full cessation of settlement construction, including Jerusalem and natural growth."

That is one tall tree he has climbed. Abbas is now committed to a stance that cannot be acceptable to an American administration that prides itself on engagement with friend and foe, and dialogue without preconditions. If Obama is willing to negotiate with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, how can Abbas get away with refusing to talk to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu? On the other hand, with every bombastic statement, Abbas seems to be limiting his domestic options. How can he go back to negotiations while saving face with his own people after repeatedly promising not to do so unless Israel freezes all settlement construction?

He can't--and the frustrated Obama administration has finally realized that the negotiations are unlikely to happen any time soon. Netanyahu, quick to sense the changing mood in the Obama administration, has turned to an old Israeli trick: When Palestinians stumble, rekindle negotiations with Syria. Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin did the same thing in the early '90s, as he was "not averse to the notion of playing Syria and the Palestinians against each other," as Efraim Inbar explained in his book on Rabin and Israel's national security. Now Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak--another master of zigzagging between the two tracks--are playing the same game, with rumblings emerging over the past few days from the supposedly deep-freezed Israeli-Syrian negotiations. 

All this presents Abbas with new challenges and few options. He can cave and return to the negotiating table--but this will weaken him domestically even more than he is now. He can try the unilateral course proposed by his prime minister, Salam Fayyad--or go even further, as some statements this past week seem to suggest--and establish a state without the benefit of Israeli-Palestinian agreements, hoping that the “world” will come around to recognizing it. Or he can disappoint all the cynics and actually quit with his tail between his legs, with very little to show, having lost Gaza to Hamas and gained nothing through negotiations.

When Abbas was first appointed in 2004, Israeli expert Danny Rubinstein described him as "the default leader, the person one dates on the rebound, a 'consolation lover' for a time after a hard separation, until true love appears." Five years later, not much has changed. And until a more nimble paramour enters the dating pool, Israel will be relegated to spinsterhood for the foreseeable future.

Shmuel Rosner, an editor and columnist based in Tel Aviv, blogs daily at Rosner’s Domain.