- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

As the Arab world burns, the Palestinians are sending out smoke signals. Rather than engage in peace talks with Israel or reform the rampant corruption within its government, the Palestinian Authority is driving the West to distraction.

While Israel has been eager to return to the negotiating table, the Palestinian Authority (PA) appears emboldened to stand up to the United States. Not only is the PA assiduously avoiding talks with Israel, its prime minister last week announced plans to seek a “unity government” with Hamas.

This comes on the heels of a direct snub of the leader of the free world. Last week, Mr. Obama reportedly made a personal appeal in a lengthy phone call with PA President Mahmoud Abbas not to push for a vote on an anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. Security Council. Mr. Obama was ignored, and the United States was forced to veto the latest U.N. fixation on Israeli settlements.

But the PA paid no price for dismissing the U.S. In fact, it scored a major victory when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton changed U.S. policy by calling settlements “illegitimate.”

Pushing the U.N. vote clearly was a move to refocus Western attention on Israel, away from the spectacle of governments across the Arab world teetering on the brink. It also was impressive. Israel, in a bid to appease the United States and the Europeans, has quietly stopped issuing new permits for construction in West Bank settlements, according to a senior Israeli official. The U.S. was aware of Israel’s major concession, yet the Obama administration allowed the Security Council to work through its months-long process all the way through to a vote.

Even though it allowed work on permits that were issued before the 10-month “freeze” on settlement construction, the Netanyahu government’s decision to refuse to issue new permits carries significant domestic political risks - and the end result was a 14-1 Security Council vote to condemn the Jewish state and a high-profile attack by Mrs. Clinton, both on Friday.

Of course, even critics of Israel know that the settlements issue is a canard. Most of the large settlement blocs are crucial to providing a security buffer around Jerusalem, which otherwise would be surrounded on three sides by Palestinian territory. That vulnerability helped spur Israel’s Arab neighbors to instigate the Six Day War in 1967.

Most of the “settlements” would be annexed by Israel in any reasonable vision of a two-state solution, so condemnation of building mostly in areas that would remain part of the Jewish state is purely theatrical.

Here’s the truth: Mr. Abbas simply cannot resume peace talks. He and his government have done nothing to prepare Palestinians for what a final deal would entail.

Longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was forced to resign recently because documents leaked to Al Jazeera (called the “Palestine Papers”) showed that the PA was willing to compromise on the issue of refugees and their descendants returning to Israel - yet publicly, he had maintained to Palestinians that this point was nonnegotiable.

In Washington, the adage is that “everyone knows what a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would look like.” It seems that “everyone,” however, does not include the Palestinians.

The reason the so-called Palestine Papers caused such a stir in Palestinian society was that PA leaders had never really been honest with their people about what to expect. That’s why Mr. Abbas would rather defy the United States at the U.N. than sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Showing that it wants nothing to do with peace talks, the PA last week declared its desire to form a “unity government” with Hamas. Most troubling is that this is not being pushed by radical elements, but rather by the man widely hailed as the most moderate Palestinian figure of any significance, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

After initially rejecting the olive branch, it appears Hamas is willing to explore power-sharing with Mr. Abbas‘ Fatah Party. If that happens - a big “if,” given recent history - U.S. taxpayer dollars inevitably would flow to Hamas and its supporters.

Then again, given the public dancing that has played out between Mr. Fayyad and Hamas, it’s quite possible that American tax dollars already have lined Hamas‘ pockets. But because there is no real transparency or accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. dumps into Palestinian coffers, the Obama administration has no good way to stop it from happening, even if it wanted to.

It appears that U.S. leverage with the PA is in short supply. Even before the U.N. vote, Mr. Abbas bragged to the newspaper Al Hayat-Al Jadida in January that the United States couldn’t “dictate” to the PA. According to a translation provided by the invaluable Palestinian Media Watch, Mr. Abbas said, “The U.S. is assisting us in the amount of $460 million annually. This does not mean that they dictate to us whatever they want.”

But what does the United States want? Governments across the Arab world seem to have no clue, especially after Mr. Obama’s back-and-forth over Egypt and the fate of Hosni Mubarak.

The PA apparently has decided that it doesn’t matter. For Americans facing the prospect of funding Hamas, that matters a great deal.

Joel Mowbray is an adjunct fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.