A setback

A setback

Could it be that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to make U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry look bad?

Kerry held a press conference Tuesday in Washington following the initial rounds of talks in the renewed peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Flanked by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on his left and P.A. chief negotiator Saeb Erekat on his right, Kerry made it clear that both parties had agreed to keep mum on the substance of the talks, leaving Kerry to make all official comments.

Apparently, Abbas didn’t get the memo.   

On Monday, the P.A. president, while making a visit to Egypt for talks with that country’s interim president, Adli Mansour, told Egyptian journalists that no Israelis, civilians or soldiers, will remain in a future Palestinian state.

“In a final solution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands,” Abbas said. “An international, multinational presence like in Sinai, Lebanon and Syria — we are with that.”

He also said, “East Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Palestine” and “we’ve already made all the necessary concessions.”

These are issues that need to be worked out at the negotiating table, not in the media. The question is, why did Abbas do it?

Perhaps this was a miscue. Perhaps Abbas was providing political cover for himself while Erekat secretly negotiates a final status agreement with Israel over the next nine months — the stated time frame in which Kerry hopes to have an agreement done.  

Or perhaps Abbas truly isn’t interested in renewing the peace talks and is deliberately ignoring the ground rules in order to disrupt them.

We don’t know.

We do know that setbacks are common in any negotiating process, and this process is no different. This one setback need not scuttle the talks, which are slated to resume in two weeks, either in Israel or the Palestinian territories.

But Kerry needs to get to the bottom of this. Clearly, he is investing his “political capital,” as President George W. Bush would say. He made six trips to the region this year to get the talks restarted; he brought back Ambassador Martin Indyk to serve as his envoy in the negotiations; and, he went out on a limb at the press conference, saying that all issues are on the table.

(Kerry, by the way, would not have done any of this were President Obama not prepared to invest his own political capital in this process.)

But something like Abbas’ remarks can wipe out the investment both leaders are making before the peace talks get under way in earnest. That’s something a president concerned with his legacy and a secretary of state new to his job cannot afford.