Wafa Amr
July 23, 2009 - 12:00am

Ten days before the Nov. 27, 2007 Annapolis peace conference, the Palestinians sent a letter to the Bush administration insisting they would accept no less than a total freeze on settlement building in the West Bank. Arab countries were also pushing for a settlement freeze to agree to attend the conference. But the Palestinians and many Arab officials attended without their precondition being fulfilled.

In fact, negotiations were carried out at a slower pace than the construction of homes in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem.

Today, ahead of the promised launching of a U.S. plan to revive deadlocked peace talks, the Palestinians are making the same demands. Enough games, they said in 2007, and are repeating this two years later. This time they are joined by the U.S. administration and the rest of the international community in the call for the implementation of the 2003 U.S.-led road map, which has replaced the Oslo Accords and the many plans put forward by senior U.S. envoys.

However, the Palestinians' enthusiasm about comments by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials immediately after the U.S. election about seeking a total settlement freeze began to give way to doubt and suspicion. Six months after Obama took office, the Palestinians are still waiting for the American peace plan. As time goes by, suspicion creeps in. In private they ask: Will the Obama administration settle for less than a settlement freeze? Will there be a secret deal similar to George W. Bush's 2005 letter to Ariel Sharon to retain the settlement blocs? These questions show that the Americans are keeping to themselves any understandings they might have reached with Israel over settlements.

Western and Arab diplomats say the sides may not have to wait long before the Obama administration reveals its plans, maybe as soon as September, after the Americans formulate a package that would help restart statehood talks. They say the talks would have an 18-month timeline.

Right now the United States is reaching understandings that create a positive environment for relaunching talks. The Americans want to get what they call "deposits" from Israel, the Arabs and the Palestinians, steps that would bring the sides "closer" to their commitments under the road map. So far, most hurdles revolve around a settlement freeze, Jerusalem and Saudi hesitation to take normalization steps toward Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is required to end incitement against Israel and pursue efforts to impose law and order in the West Bank. If he is asked to withdraw his rejection and sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without a total settlement freeze, he would have to come up with a good excuse to soften his position, while Netanyahu repeatedly vows not to negotiate over Jerusalem, continue settlement expansion and reject the refugees' right of return.

Such a move would further weaken Abbas' standing among his own people and affect his influence on young Fatah members in the Fatah conference planned for August 4 to elect new leaders.

Many of Fatah's younger generation seeking a dominant role in the decision-making process - for the first time since Yasser Arafat created the movement in 1965 - believe in negotiations with Israel and seek to differ with Hamas on this issue. But they don't believe in capitulation. The word "resistance" against occupation remains part of their culture and is an emotive issue, especially after their humiliating loss to Hamas in the 2006 election.

Fatah moderates seeking to gear "resistance" toward nonviolence are worried about steps the U.S. or Israel might take that could undermine them, because this would again play in the hands of the so-called rejectionists.

Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki believes that if elections were held in January, Hamas is not expected to repeat its overwhelming victory of 2006. Fatah seems more united now, and Shikaki's polls show that the people may want to punish Hamas and hold it responsible for causing the split between the West Bank and Gaza.

If the Fatah conference is held as planned and the movement remains strong, Shikaki believes Fatah may fare better than it has for a long time.


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