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Palestinians Waiting for Obama Peace Plan

The New York Times has finally joined the growing bandwagon calling for Barack Obama to "put a map and a deal on the table" for Israeli-Palestinian peace. "The outlines of a deal are no secret," a Times editorial said. "They were first proposed by President Bill Clinton in 2000."

Maybe it was just coincidence that, on the very same day, the Palestinian Authority floated the possibility of a huge concession. Yasser Abed Rabbo, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Al-Hayat newspaper that the Palestinian Authority is not very eager to gain independence via a vote in the UN this September, which has become the focus of so much attention. The PA would defer its move to gain UN recognition, he said, if "real and serious" negotiations with Israel begin.

PA president Mahmoud Abbas has already voiced much the same view, saying that the PA will turn to the UN only if it runs out of all other options. "If you do not want negotiations, and don't want an accord, then what are we supposed to do?" he asked a group of Israelis recently. "Please, you must take advantage of the opportunity to continue" with peace talks.

Rabbo's "real and serious" means a settlement defined pretty much by the Clinton parameters: A Palestinian state inside "the 1967 borders [with] very limited exchange of land" -- which is code for letting Israel annex a few of the very biggest Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Rabbo did not have to add that Jerusalem will be shared as capital of both countries, since that's a given.

But Rabbo went a large step further, beyond even the Clinton parameters, when he added: "and no exchanges of populations." That sounds very much like code for the Palestinians giving up the right of return to homes within Israel proper, as long as all the Jewish settlers living in what becomes Palestine leave their settlements. If that's what Rabbo means -- and it's hard to read it otherwise -- the PA may be ready to make a huge new concession to get the peace talks going again.

The Palestinians have good reason to want to avoid that September UN vote. Even though it will surely go massively in their favor, giving them formal independence and a seat in the General Assembly, it may well not be worth the price. No one can predict what the Israelis will do. Things in the West Bank and Gaza could turn very nasty. And the UN would surely recognize a Palestinian state in both of those territories, meaning that Fatah and Hamas would be under huge pressure to reconcile, which will be painful to both sides.

Nevertheless, Rabbo's statement is nowhere near a formal offer from the PA. It's just a trial balloon. The PA has used Rabbo to float such conciliatory balloons before. In October, 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was insisting that the big obstacle to peace talks was the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as the "Jewish state." Rabbo told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that "the Palestinians will be willing to recognize the State of Israel in any way that it desires, if the Americans would only present a map of the future Palestinian state that includes all of the territories captured in 1967, including East Jerusalem. ... Any formulation the Americans present -- even asking us to call Israel the 'Chinese State' -- we will agree to it."

Not long after that, Netanyahu stopped beating the "Jewish state" drum so loudly and started emphasizing other excuses for inaction. Now his main public focus is to combat the growing world-wide recognition of an independent Palestinian state, which would surely culminate in the UN giving Palestine a seat, if it goes that far.

Behind the scenes, though, the Israelis are working just as hard to make sure Obama does not offer the peace plan that the Times and other pillars of the U.S. foreign policy establishment have now called for. The wily Israeli leader is desperately searching for some trick to put the brakes on both processes.

Whether he succeeds is ultimately up to Obama, who wants to offer his own peace plan and has Hillary Clinton's backing, according to the Times. But if he does, he can count on the Republicans blasting him with charges of "selling out our best friend, Israel" and "supporting Palestinian terrorists," just as he's kicking off his re-election campaign.

The Republicans, in turn, will count on Americans believing in the myth of Israel's insecurity, the decades-old popular story about "little Israel" fighting for its life against monstrous Arab enemies who want to destroy it. So they swallow the GOP line that Israel's intransigence is merely prudent self-defense.

In fact, the latest Palestinian move toward concession proves, as do the past Palestinian concessions, that Israel holds all the trump cards. Obama himself said as much to a gathering of Jewish leaders at the White House, when he talked about "the fact that Israel is the stronger party here, militarily, culturally and politically. And Israel needs to create context for [peace] to happen."

Yet he knows that Israel will not create that context. So he's got to decide whether it's time to do so himself. Ultimately, his decision depends on which way the political winds are blowing. In other words, it depends on whether people who know the truth work hard enough to burst the myth of insecurity.

The first priority here is not to go on proclaiming Israel's foul misdeeds. It's to inform the public that Israel's existence is perfectly secure and that Israel's people will be more, not less, secure with an independent Palestinian state living next door.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.