Saleh Al-naami
Al- Ahram
March 18, 2008 - 6:54pm

Just two weeks after Israel began its bloody incursions into the Gaza Strip Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed today under American auspices.

Despite repeated decisions by the Israeli government to step up settlement and Judaisation activities in the West Bank, and a week following the attack on a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem, and the two sides are meeting against the backdrop of an un- announced truce that, with the exception of minor violations, appears to be holding.

The level of US interest in what is currently taking place between the Palestinians and Israelis is reflected in the visits both Vice-President Dick Cheney and Republican presidential candidate John McCain intend to make to the region. So are we on the eve of a decisive push to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or is the activity we are witnessing in the Palestinian-Israeli arena a reflection of the conflicting agendas of regional and international powers?

Naji Sharab, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, believes that Israel has agreed to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority because Israeli decision- makers see the circumstances as favourable to reaching a political settlement that secures strategic Israeli goals. Sharab argues that Israel is determined to take advantage of internal Palestinian splits and believes that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to offer concessions.

"Israel realises that this is its last chance to reach a political settlement that responds to its interests. Once Abbas leaves the arena there won't be another leader capable of justifying continued negotiations with Israel," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Even in their dreams the Israelis would be unable to conceive of a Palestinian leadership more flexible than that represented by Abbas."

Sharab thinks it possible that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas might surprise the world by reaching an agreement on the principles of a Palestinian state without directly addressing fundamental issues such as Jerusalem, five million Palestinian refugees and borders. But such an agreement would address a state only in "temporary" terms. "It would not be a dramatic event," he says.

Sharab believes any agreement would lean heavily on the Abbas-Beilin document of 1995, and the Geneva document penned by senior Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abd Rabbo. "Israeli public opinion can live with the ceiling of both documents," he says.

But even if an agreement is reached on the principles of establishing the Palestinian state this does not, warns Sharab, mean the agreement will be implemented. Olmert's coalition might collapse at any moment leaving Abbas to wait until new elections are held, and all public opinion polls confirm that the secular and extreme religious right will win.

The American administration and regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia all have an interest not only in maintaining a truce but in speeding up the pace of negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, argues Sharab. Ahead of the Arab Summit it will reduce the margin for manoeuvring by Syria, Hizbullah and its allies in Lebanon, and could force their hand over the election of a new president. And as his administration winds down Bush is increasingly concerned with chalking up a foreign policy success to offset failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and boost the Republicans in the eyes of the American public.

Ghassan Al-Khatib, vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian minister and negotiator, does not see the resumption of negotiations as signalling anything dramatic. "Communications between the PA and Israel never stop, even when it is declared they have been frozen," he says. Far more important than the fact that negotiations are happening, he points out, is what the negotiations entail. "The test facing the PA is to transform negotiations into a mechanism for achieving Palestinian and not Israeli interests," he told the Weekly.

Unlike Sharab, Al-Khatib believes that reaching an agreement on the basic principles of a Palestinian state within two months is "unrealistic, not because of the Palestinian party but because the Israeli political environment won't allow it". Yet he adds that, "anything is possible."

"We were taken by surprise in 1993 with the Oslo accords and it could happen again."

Al-Khatib's take on Washington's new-found enthusiasm for negotiations he puts down to its perennial support for Israel. "Israel acts in accordance with the compass of American interests," he said. "America once frowned upon any Arab state holding communications with Hamas, yet after it realised that Israel had an interest in reaching a truce with the movement it asked Egypt to contact Hamas and convince it to reach a ceasefire with Israel."

Yet can the resumption of negotiations signify anything serious given the unprecedented levels of settlement and Judaisation taking place in the West Bank and Jerusalem?

Khalil Al-Tafkaji, director of the maps at the Arab Studies Association and an expert on Israel's settlement policies, believes Israel's decision to step up settlement activity "goes in tandem with negotiations for a permanent solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority."

"Israel has always counted on delaying discussions on the future of the West Bank and the issue of Jerusalem until the greatest area of land possible has been Judaised," he told the Weekly. "Which leaves the question of what possible Palestinian state they can be talking about. The fact of settlement has prevented any regional continuity between the areas of any possible state."

Saeb Erekat, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's chief negotiator, rejects the criticisms directed at President Abbas for agreeing to resume negotiations with Israel at a time when Israel has announced the start of numerous settlement projects in the West Bank and Jerusalem. He notes that the negotiations that begin today will take place on the level of an American- Palestinian-Israeli committee "so as to place the American administration before its responsibilities".

"We realise that Israel, through its decisions to step up settlement activity, is destroying the basis on which any new negotiations could be held, but we want to hear from the Americans their position on what Olmert's government is doing in the presence of the Israelis," he told the Weekly.

Asked whether early May was a feasible date for announcing the principles governing any Palestinian state, Erekat's answer was a simple "no".


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