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Mahmoud Abbas at a Loss

By Khaled Amayreh

ccun.org, February 8, 2010


With the Obama administration effectively reneging on pledges to get Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank, or even abide by the outdated "roadmap" peace plan, Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas is finding himself in an increasingly unenviable position.

Abbas had been insisting all along that he wouldn't agree to resume talks with Israel unless the latter agreed to halt settlement expansion in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. However, in recent weeks, the Palestinian leader has been signalling that he may return to the negotiating table virtually without conditions.

In an interview that appeared on Sunday 31 January on The Guardian website, Abbas was quoted as saying that he would be prepared to resume face-to- face talks with Israel if the latter froze all settlement construction for three months and accepted the borders of 4 June 1967. "These are not preconditions; they are requirements in the roadmap. If they are not prepared to do that, it means they don't want a political solution."

The Israeli government rejected the Palestinian proposal, calling it "unrealistic" and "unacceptable". Responding to the proposal, Mark Regev, advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, resorted to red herring tactics, arguing that the Palestinians were still short of their roadmap obligations. Regev cited the issue of "incitement", as if Palestinians were expected to sing hymns of praise whenever Israel killed their brethren and demolished their homes.

Earlier, it was reported that Abbas was considering proposals presented by US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell for "proximity" or "indirect" talks. Mitchell proposed that he travel between Ramallah and occupied Jerusalem, relaying messages between the two sides on various core issues, including borders, East Jerusalem, settlements and the refugees. The proposal was part of a "package of inducements" that would also include the release of an unspecified number of non-Islamist prisoners from Israeli detention camps.

However, the reported package contained no undertaking to freeze settlement expansion or even halt the growing pace of Arab home demolitions in occupied Jerusalem and the so-called "Area C" of the West Bank where the Israeli occupation army maintains full security and civilian authority. This area, which covers the bulk of the Palestinian countryside, constitutes more than 65 per cent of the occupied territories.

PA spokesmen are denying that Abbas is retreating from his earlier stand with regards to settlements. Ghassan Al-Khatib, a former cabinet minister and now head of the PA Government Press Office, said he didn't think Abbas was no longer demanding a settlement freeze. Al-Khatib told Al-Ahram Weekly that Abbas was consulting with Arab leaders on the expediency of resuming the peace process with Israel in a manner that would bring maximum benefit for the Palestinian cause.

Al-Khatib defended the idea of "proximity" talks whereby the Americans would shuttle between Israel and Arab capitals to relay respective positions to the sides. "This is not necessarily a bad idea. The Americans would be witnesses and Israel wouldn't be able to fabricate lies as to who is to blame for the failure of talks, as was the case in past failed talks."

Some voices at the Palestinian arena have lately accused Abbas of seeking Arab cover to resume the "futile" peace process without preconditions, with one Hamas official calling these efforts "a reproduction of past failures". Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been consulting Arab leaders on the best way to resume stalled talks between Israel and the Palestinians. While these leaders have been urging Washington to actively intervene to bring about a speedy resumption of the peace process, the US has been pressing, even pressuring, Arab capitals to cajole the increasingly vulnerable PA leadership to drop settlement related demands ahead of reviving talks.

One of the Arab states most concerned about the continued paralysis of the peace process is Jordan. King Abdullah has been warning that time is running out for peace and that extraordinary efforts must be made now in order to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian impasse. Jordan is particularly worried that the continued stalemate in the West Bank could generate tension in Jordan itself, and might even precipitate attacks on Israeli and Western targets on Jordanian soil.

The fear is not unfounded. Last week, the motorcade of the Israeli ambassador to Jordan was attacked outside Amman with a roadside bomb. While causing no injuries or serious damage, the incident rang alarm bells in the corridors of Jordan's intelligence services, which are likely to be more nervous regarding the ramifications of the situation in the West Bank on security and stability at home.

However, notwithstanding Jordanian concerns, it seems that the Obama administration is not in a position -- or doesn't want -- to force the intransigent Israeli government to allow for the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank. Abbas himself has echoed this view, saying that continued Israeli stonewalling would lead to the creation of a unitary state in all of Mandate Palestine (Israel proper plus the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem). In this case, the Palestinians would form a numerical majority, which implies that Israel would lose its Jewish identity.

But Israel, especially under the extreme rightwing Zionist leadership, is unlikely to allow such a scenario to evolve, even if Palestinians gave it their backing. In the meantime, there are growing fears that Israel might launch a fresh wave of aggression against Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, with or without the acquiescence of the Obama administration, in order to further enhance its hegemonic standing vis--vis the PA and Syria, and also as warning to Iran.

Israeli officials calculate that the neutralisation of Hamas would allow the PA leadership (Abbas) to give significant concessions to Israel with regards to final-status issues. Other Israeli policy planners, however, argue that destroying or even weakening Hamas -- assuming this is possible -- would lead to Israel losing a valuable propaganda card, and that might eventually lead to increasing international pressure on Israel to return to the 1967 borders. Israel has been seriously provoking Hamas, including via the assassination of a prominent Hamas operative in Dubai, as well as the attempted assassination of a Hamas official in Khan Younis on 1 February.

 

 

 

 

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