A little-noted announcement has slipped by everyone's radar: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he is ready immediately to restart negotiations without preconditions with Israel but that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has "refused to return" to the peace table. Unbelievable, no?
That's right, unbelievable, and not true. I made it up.
It was actually Netanyahu who said: "We are ready to resume negotiations tomorrow morning," as reported July 11 in JPost.
My question: Why isn't this big news with the peace camp? Why are groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now not starting a massive campaign urging the Obama administration to pressure the Palestinians to emulate Bibi and return to the negotiation table "tomorrow morning"?
One problem, of course, is that the peace process has been drowning in preconditions. It started at the beginning of President Obama's term, when he called for Israel to freeze construction in Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem. Today, the new precondition is for Israel to agree beforehand that the starting point for negotiating borders should be the "1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps."
Israel, in its frustration at being singled out, has responded with its own preconditions: Palestinians should forgo their demand that millions of Palestinian refugees (including their descendants) should have the right to return to Israel -- a demand that everyone knows is a deal-killer. In that same vein, Israel has asked that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
So, as we've seen, two can play the precondition game. It's a game with no end and no winners. Once you bark up the precondition tree, it's very hard to come down.
One of the astonishing things about this whole mess is how Barack Obama has failed to act like Barack Obama. Here is a man who worships dialogue and engagement, and yet, his own actions have stifled the very dialogue and engagement that is needed between the two parties.
Love him or hate him, one man has cut through all the morass of obstacles -- and that man is Netanyahu. "Israel is ready to negotiate without preconditions," he announced at his first meeting at the White House more than two years ago. Even if Obama didn't trust Bibi's intentions, why didn't he at least call his bluff? Why didn't he pressure the Palestinians to enter negotiations and test Bibi's willingness to make a deal?
There has always been a simple, elegant and compelling way for the peace process to move forward: Demand that both sides sit down immediately without preconditions. What is so complicated about that?
The only way we will ever find out if the parties are really serious about making a deal is to put them in a room with plenty of hummus and Turkish coffee and force them to engage face to face on all issues of contention.
If the Palestinians come out and say: "We will never compromise on the right of return," we will know where the peace process stands. If the Israelis come out and say: "We will never compromise on a united Jerusalem and on not dealing with a terrorist entity (Hamas)," we will also know where we stand.
If the goal is to end the conflict, all issues must be on the table. What use is a deal on borders if it only perpetuates the conflict? What incentive would Israel have to make heart-wrenching decisions like the evacuation of 60,000 settlers if it doesn't see peace at the end of the rainbow?
Only "forced engagement" between the parties will help us see whether there's any hope at this time to end the conflict. If the answer is that "now is not the right time," shouldn't we want to know that now so we can focus our energies on negotiating an interim arrangement?
This is why I'm disappointed that a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" group like J Street hasn't pressured Obama to pressure the Palestinians to return immediately to the peace table. I'm not a reflexive J Street basher. I've gotten to know its leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami, and I like him. He says he wants to do what's best for Israel.
Well, as I see it, what's best for Israel is to get the Palestinians back to the peace table and away from their unilateral initiative to seek recognition at the United Nations -- an initiative that can only escalate the conflict and move the parties further apart.
It is absurd and unjust that the only party under pressure to accept preconditions to peace talks is the one party that has already said it is willing to return to peace talks "tomorrow morning."
J Street has mastered the art of applying grass-roots political pressure. So far, this pressure has been directed mostly toward Israel, reinforcing the global trend of singling out the Jewish state. This failed approach has succeeded only in building the perception that Israel is the main obstacle to peace.
I wonder: How has that approach been pro-peace or pro-Israel?
In its latest mailer, J Street asks us to "say no to politics as usual on Israel." I agree. It's time for J Street to push Obama for a more balanced approach: equal pressure on Bibi and Abbas to return to the peace table "tomorrow morning," with no preconditions for either side.
And if Obama is serious about making progress, he should be the one serving the Turkish coffee.