Khaled Amayreh: Awaiting a miracle from Washington

By Khaled Amayreh, Al-Ahram Weekly – 24 – 30 Dec 2009

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is apparently seeking an opportunity to resume peace talks with Israel without losing face due to the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements and US failure to get the Jewish state to stop stealing Palestinian land.

The PA is still clinging to its erstwhile position, namely that it won’t return to the negotiating table unless Israel agrees to stop all settlement expansion, including so-called natural growth, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The PA had hoped that the Obama administration would force Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement growth.

However, despite more than eight visits to the region, Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, seems to have failed to make any real dent in the Israeli stance, which vehemently rejects a comprehensive settlement freeze, especially in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu announced last month that a 10-month settlement freeze would be observed in the West Bank but not in East Jerusalem. Washington, while not showing any particular enthusiasm towards the Israeli announcement, called on the PA leadership to reciprocate by resuming peace talks with Israel.

However, Palestinian officials, as well as European diplomats, did not place much store in the credibility of the Israeli announcement, especially after the Netanyahu government gave settlers a green light to build hundreds of new settler units despite the announcement.

Feeling that Netanyahu has succeeded in overruling, or at least outmanoeuvring, Obama on the issue of settlements, the Palestinian leadership is now trying to find a way to evade or bypass the settlements knot, while at the same time not appearing to give Israel any important concessions that would undermine the PA’s standing and popularity among its own people.

Last week, PA President Mahmoud Abbas revealed that he had been urging Israeli officials, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, to effect, even secretly, a settlements freeze, saying that such a step could lead to the conclusion of a final peace agreement in six months.

“I spoke with Defence Minister Ehud Barak twice over recent weeks. I suggested to him three weeks ago that Israel freeze all settlement construction for six months, including in East Jerusalem, without saying so in public, just carrying it out in practice. I want to emphasise that he need not even declare it, but I demanded a complete freeze of settlement construction.”

Abbas added that “during this time we can return to the negotiating table and perhaps even achieve a final-status agreement. I have yet to receive an answer.”

He spoke bitterly about Israel’s failure to do its part for the roadmap, saying that “we were required to stop terror attacks, recognise Israel and even stop incitement. So come and see what we have done. Although the joint committee against incitement is no longer active, we did act and are acting against incitement. There is no longer incitement against Israel in the mosques.”

Abbas’s remarks that a settlements freeze for a few months could lead to a final peace agreement raised a lot of eyebrows in Palestinian as well as in Israeli quarters.

One Palestinian commentator, Zakaria Mohamed, scoffed at Abbas’s remarks, suggesting that the PA president was out of touch with reality.

“What type of miracle would occur if Israel froze settlement expansion for six months? Is this the real problem impeding the conclusion of a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” wrote Zakaria last week.

He added that the unrealistic tone adopted by Abbas suggested that he either did not know what he was talking about, or that he was simply out of touch with reality.

This assessment is probably accurate, since the PA spent months talking with the former and presumably less extremist Israeli government of Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, but to no avail. Given the make- up of the present government, there is little chance that Netanyahu will agree to restart talks from the point the previous negotiations left off.

Indeed, there is no evidence that Netanyahu has mitigated the stance he voiced in his speech at Bar-Ilan University in June, when he said that any Palestinian state would have to be without Jerusalem and effectively controlled by Israel. Likewise, Netanyahu said no to the repatriation of the refugees and a return to the 1967 borders.

It would therefore not be an exaggeration to say that Abbas’s remarks, made to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, were a form of day-dreaming. Day-dreaming signals a high degree of frustration.

However, Abbas’s frustration is mild in comparison to the rampant disillusionment permeating Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian population as a whole, the main source of which is Obama’s failure to act on pledges he made following his inauguration as US president earlier this year.

Obama promised that his administration would see to it that Israel froze settlement building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

However, nearly six months after his landmark speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Obama has done next to nothing to enforce his stance, which suggests that either he did not mean what he said in Cairo, or that he has been unable to act because of stiff opposition from the so-called “Clintonite neo-cons,” the pro-Israeli democrats allied with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Obama’s failure to put pressure on Israel is causing a lot of frustration and disenchantment in the Palestinian streets, and much of the blame is being deflected onto the PA, which had given Obama the benefit of the doubt.

Moreover, many Palestinians are questioning the wisdom of waiting for a miracle from Washington, which ironically is already pressuring the PA to resume peace talks even without guarantees that such talks will eventually lead to ending the Israeli occupation that started in 1967.

Indeed, it was Abbas himself who cited this reality to justify his refusal to nominate himself for a second term in office as head of the PA.

This week, the PLO Central Council meeting in Ramallah extended the soon- to-expire term of the Palestinian leader, an expected step that will allow Abbas to remain in office indefinitely and at least until new elections can be organised.

Apart from reiterating the PA’s longstanding refusal to return to negotiations with Israel before the latter freezes settlement expansion, there was nothing substantive in Abbas’s long speech.

Frustrated by the absence of progress in the stalled peace process, some delegates urged the adoption of a new Palestinian strategy, such as demanding the creation of one unitary state in all mandatory Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean.

While Abbas said he would not reconsider his decision to resign as PA president, he did indicate that he would take certain decisions soon, depending on developments on the ground.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly Hassan Khreisha, former deputy-speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, was asked what he thought Abbas was alluding to when he spoke of decisions he would talk in the foreseeable future.

“I think he was referring to putting his resignation into effect, and I think he is sincere about this. Yet, it is uncertain if he will retain his post as chief of the PLO,” Khreisha said, asking “what will become of the PA after the departure of Abbas?”

That is a question that many are already trying to find the answer to.

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