There have been a flurry of rumors and stories lately surrounding the US-moderated proximity talks between Israel and Palestine and whether Palestinian chief Mahmoud Abbas would agree to direct talks with Israeli PM Netanyahu. There is every reason to suspect that direct negotiations with Israel will not bear the sweet fruit of independence anytime soon, but it is undeniable that refusing to talk directly to the Israelis will not help the Palestinian cause either. Thus, despite the political consequences of continuing the division of Palestine during direct talks, Abbas finds himself without much choice other than to return to negotiations.
Abu Mazen has held strong to the condition that Israel stop settlement construction in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, before the Palestinians would sit down with Israel. So far, despite the 10 month construction slow down, Israel has refused to meet this demand. Settler construction in East Jerusalem has continued unabated and expansion efforts can be seen in settlements throughout the West Bank. Unfortunately, though, the end of the construction moratorium in September has settler leaders pledging to begin a massive construction effort while the Israeli government seems unwilling to implement any meaningful extension of the construction freeze.
The failure of Israel to actually live up to Abbas’ demands are hardly the only reason the Palestinian president is hesitant to sit down with Israel. Netanyahu, Abbas’ Israeli counterpart, has shown little true interest in making peace in Palestine and – if recently surfaced videos are to be believed – views the peace process as a means to gain politically in Israel and internationally without making any true concessions. If the Israeli attitude during the proximity talks can be seen as a predictor of the Israeli attitude during direct negotiations, Abbas has even more to worry about. While the Palestinians reportedly approached the talks seriously and professionally with a well thought-out plan that culminated in a far-reaching peace proposal, Netanyahu has yet to even name a negotiating team and has not given any response to the Palestinian peace proposal.
Moreover, it is likely that – if the United States is unable to hold Israel accountable for provocative moves (and if history repeats itself, the Obama administration will be unlikely to stand up to Netanyahu) – Abbas could be places in a dilemma of continuing peace talks despite aggressive Israeli policies (domestically damning) and pulling out of talks and being seen as derailing a chance for peace (internationally damning):
Abbas has good reason to fear that, should there be some act so egregious — like approval of Jerusalem mayor Barkat’s plan to “re-develop” Silwan into a settlers’ paradise at the expense of the Palestinian residents — that he is compelled to suspend the talks, it will be Abbas, not Netanyahu, who will end up being blamed for killing the peace process.
[tweetmeme] Meanwhile, Abbas seems to be the target of intense pressure to return to talks by members of the Arab League – who seem to view the Americans as serious about peace – and the Obama administration – which is perhaps desperate to extend peace talks to avoid disaster in the region and another foreign policy failure. Reportedly, the Obama administration sent Abbas a detailed letter pushing the Palestinians to return to direct talks, warning that a failure to do so would lead to damaged relations with the US. Interestingly, the letter allegedly also includes a promise from the Americans that a return to direct talks would be met with a partial extension of the settlement freeze.
While there have been rumors of a partial extension of the freeze (excluding the major settlement blocs), anything less than a full continuation of the construction moratorium (and one that is actually enforced) could undermine the Palestinian negotiating position. Beginning talks while construction continues in certain settlements would be akin to acknowledging Israeli claims to Palestinian land. Predictably, Abbas understands the negative political consequences of both accepting and rejecting what is predominantly an empty Israeli gesture.
If a Palestinian state is to be forged following the (potentially disastrous) West Bank/Fatah only approach to negotiations, Abbas will need to return to direct talks despite all the risks involved. While there is a distinct chance that Israeli maneuvering, American inability to push Israel or Palestinian internal miscalculations could prematurely end both the fragile peace talks and Abu Mazen’s unenviable run as Palestinian president, direct talks have the potential to bring more independence (or at least less occupation) to the West Bank. Unfortunately, however, the West Bank only approach to negotiations – an approach that has been fully accepted by the US, Israel and Fatah – will only further divide Palestine.
Photo from Kuwaiti Times