Until Israel meets his demands, the Palestinian president says, he will refuse to begin negotiations. He won't even agree to help Obama's envoy, George J. Mitchell, persuade Arab states to take small confidence-building measures. "We can't talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognize the two-state solution," he insisted in an interview. "Until then we can't talk to anyone."
For veterans of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Abbas's bargaining position will be bone-wearyingly familiar: Both sides invariably begin by arguing that they cannot act until the other side offers far-reaching concessions. Netanyahu suggested during his own visit to Washington last week that the Palestinians should start by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, though he didn't make it a precondition for meeting with Abbas.
What's interesting about Abbas's hardline position, however, is what it says about the message that Obama's first Middle East steps have sent to Palestinians and Arab governments. From its first days the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians: Until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel.
Obama, in contrast, has repeatedly and publicly stressed the need for a West Bank settlement freeze, with no exceptions. In so doing he has shifted the focus to Israel. He has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud. "The Americans are the leaders of the world," Abbas told me and Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. "They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.' "
It's true, of course, that if Obama is to broker a Middle East settlement he will have to overcome the recalcitrance of Netanyahu and his Likud party, which has not yet reconciled itself to the idea that Israel will have to give up most of the West Bank and evacuate tens of thousands of settlers. But Palestinians remain a long way from swallowing reality as well. Setting aside Hamas and its insistence that Israel must be liquidated, Abbas -- usually described as the most moderate of Palestinian leaders -- last year helped doom Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, by rejecting a generous outline for Palestinian statehood.