Avi Issacharoff
February 21, 2008 - 7:28pm

For a minute it seemed that the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the media focus surrounding it, were shaken awake. Following three sleepy months since the end of the Annapolis conference, and with nearly no diplomatic headlines, Yasser Abed Rabbo - the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization central committee, and until recently a member of the negotiating team - managed to bring some drama to the process.

"If the situation does not progress toward putting an end to the construction in the settlements and toward a serious and continuous negotiations," he threatened Wednesday on Radio Palestine, "we must undertake steps similar to that in Kosovo and unilaterally declare independence."

It's possible that the storm stirred by Abed Rabbo's statements led to the crowding in the briefing room of the "PLO department of negotiations." The head of the department, Saeb Erekat, held a news conference in the small hall following the meeting Tuesday between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Erekat, a member of the team negotiating with Israel, sat next to the Palestinian flag and facing him on the wall, as expected, was a picture of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. "First, contrary to what was said in some of the media about delaying the talks on the question of Jerusalem, we are talking about everything," he said." "The Israeli side has also recognized this - we know that the Olmert government has its own internal problems, but we have enough of our own problems. We will make every effort to reach agreement by the end of 2008, and I cannot go into the details of the negotiations. It has been agreed that nothing would be released" to the media, he explained.

The second issue during the meeting between the two leaders, Erekat said, is the implementation of the first stage of the road map. He assailed Israel, and said that since the Annapolis conference, construction has continued in 11 different settlements in the West Bank, contrary to what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised.

"Olmert and the president [Abbas] agreed to a tripartite committee of [PA Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad, [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak, and U.S. General [William] Fraser, which is meant to monitor the implementation of this stage."

The third subject Erekat discussed was the Gaza Strip and the rule of Hamas there. It is precisely his insistence that "without Gaza there will not be a Palestinian state," which raises a question as to the likelihood that a state can be established this year.

In view of the absolute control of Hamas over the Strip, the future of the talks looks bleak, almost meaningless, and still, the PA and the government of Israel are continuing to disseminate optimistic signals.

One of the Palestinian journalists wondered at the end of the briefing whether it is possible that the leadership on both sides is putting the media to sleep and creating the impression of lack of progress, while behind the scenes a peace agreement is being created.

"Perhaps they are doing to us what they did at Oslo?" a journalist said, referring to the secrecy under which the Olso Accords were kept until they were completed.

Except that in the meantime, besides the speculation, the hot subject for most Palestinian reporters in the room was Abed Rabbo and his statements. Erekat was asked about the "Kosovo declaration," and did not hesitate to contradict it.

"We need genuine independence, not declarations, if the occupation is to come to an end - we are not Kosovo, but under Israeli occupation," Erekat said.

Similar statements were heard from the head of the negotiating team of Palestinians, Ahmed Qureia, and later also from Abbas.

A senior Palestinian involved in the talks explained Abed Rabbo's statements in terms of simple Palestinian politics: "Abu Mazen [Abbas] left him outside the team that is holding talks with the Israelis. This is his response to the decision of the president [Abbas]."


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