By Khalid Amayreh
(source: Al-Ahram Weekly)
While the Palestinians and Israelis will soon engage in proximity talks, the preceding battle was won by Israel, with Palestinian leaders much weakened
At a time when the Obama administration is hailing the imminent resumption of indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a "notable achievement", very few observers in the region think that the upcoming talks will lead to any breakthrough or tangible progress.
Backed by major Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the PA agreed this week to start "indirect" or "proximity talks" with Israel for four months.
The PA had been refusing to resume stalled talks with Israel as long as Israel kept up expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Intensive pressure from Washington, coupled with "brotherly advice" from moderate Arab states, seems to have dislodged the Palestinian leadership from its earlier stance.
Some reports this week indicated that the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu has given the Obama administration "implicit assurances" that Israel wouldn't indulge in fresh settlement expansion and home demolitions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at least for the duration of the talks. If true, this may have encouraged the PA to agree to restart talks. Netanyahu nonetheless vowed to keep up expanding settlements despite the upcoming resumption of talks. He told supporters this week that "building all over the land of Israel will continue irrespective of what you hear in the media." The PA was reportedly asked not to publicise the Israeli "concession" of halting settlement expansion in order not to undercut Netanyahu vis-à-vis his extreme rightwing coalition partners who oppose any peace agreement with the Palestinians, especially if involving "territorial concessions". For his part, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereikat warned that the talks would "stop the moment Israel starts building new settler units on occupied Palestinian territory". The resumption of talks between Israel and the PA is no cause for euphoria. Palestinian officials in Ramallah have suggested that the Palestinian leadership opted to restart stalled talks "first and foremost in order to appease Washington and prove to the Obama administration that Israel, not the Palestinians, was the real impeder of peace." "I think President Abbas wanted to prove to the Americans that he is still the nice guy and that Netanyahu was the villain," said a PA operative close to Abbas's coterie of aides and advisors. The operative, who was not authorised to speak to the press, added that, "Abbas and the entire Palestinian leadership knew quite well that there was zero per cent chance that the restarted talks would succeed." "We simply don't want to lose the public relations showdown with Israel because what is happening is a public relations battle, not real peace efforts." From a different vantage, some stress that Washington's intentions are disingenuous and that the US is only utilising the issue in order to isolate Iran by depriving the Islamic republic of a valuable propaganda card in its showdown with the West over its nuclear programme. The US, especially the State Department, is convinced that the Arab-Israeli conflict is an effective "red herring" that enables Iran to escape accountability with regards to its emerging nuclear capability. Hence, observers in the Arab region argue forcefully that the driving motive behind accelerated US efforts to get Israel and the PA to resume peace talks has more to do with building an Arab coalition against Iran and less to do with pushing towards a lasting solution to the enduring conflict in the Middle East. The huge and seemingly unbridgeable gaps between the PA and Israel — especially the present hawkish government, arguably the most extreme in Israel's history — are bound to make tangible progress unlikely. Indeed, while ostensibly accepting Palestinian statehood in principle, Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed that Israel would never withdraw from the bulk of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu has also said repeatedly that Israel would retain its current control of all border crossing to and from the West Bank, which means that any future Palestinian state would lack sovereignty and real authority and be subservient to and tightly controlled by Israel. It is also clear that talks between the two sides over such cardinal final status issues as the refugee problem, which many experts consider the heart of the Palestinian cause, will go nowhere since Israel vehemently rejects repatriating Palestinian refugees to their original villages and homes in what is now Israel. For its part, the PA can't ignore the issue lest it loses legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people. President Abbas is thus resuming stalled talks with Israel from a position of considerable weakness. On numerous occasions, Abbas said he wouldn't return to the negotiating table with Israel unless the latter froze all settlement activities in the West Bank. His obvious retreat in this regard is bound to weaken his image both in the eyes of Israelis as well as the Palestinians. Indeed, Abbas is likely to face mounting opposition from his own Fatah Party should he continue to disregard the party's institutions, such as the Revolutionary Council that recently reasserted its objection to the resumption of talks with Israel under the present circumstances (i.e. continued settlement expansion). Also, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella organisation under whose rubric Abbas is resuming talks with Israel, is firmly opposed to the unconditional resumption of talks for the same reason. Finally, Abbas's Palestinian arena is divided against itself, with the rift between Fatah and Hamas lingering if not deepening, and with no signs of a foreseeable breakthrough. For these and other reasons, it is expected that the Palestinian negotiators will be facing their Israeli counterparts from an inherently weak position. With these hard realities, and frustrated by the rejectionist Israeli stance and also by the Obama administration's reluctance to pressure Israel, and still more by Arab states' chronic failure to help the Palestinians in any meaningful way behind paying rhetorical lip service to their cause, Abbas last week called on the US to impose a solution on the two sides. Observers have interpreted his call as an expression of exasperation, if not political depression.