Osama Al-Sharif
Arab News (Opinion)
January 13, 2010 - 1:00am

In normal circumstances — but then what’s normal in the Middle East — one would receive news of recent US efforts to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with relief, even jubilation. After weeks of deliberate disengagement from mediation, maybe to punish the main parties or as a sign of frustration, anger or all of the above, Washington is once again stepping into the quicksands of the elusive peace process, which it had helped launch and nurture and eventually monopolized for more than 15 years.

Now Special Middle East envoy George Mitchell’s mission has been reactivated while his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had just received in Washington the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, apparently to quiz them on ways to apply pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiations table.

In fact, after an uneasy hiatus, diplomatic efforts are picking up pace, with the international Quartet meeting in Brussels, Syria and Saudi Arabia each calling on Abbas and his rivals in Hamas to meet, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak receiving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Cairo to hear his latest suggestions.

The start of 2010, with regards to the peace process, is in total contrast to the early months of 2009, when newly inaugurated President Barack Obama was in a leadership mood, demanding that Israel halts all settlement activities in the occupied territories so that his plan for a final round of negotiations, aiming at reaching a final settlement based on the two-state solution, can take off and bear results by 2011 at the most.

But now the ambition is to restart peace talks at any price. Washington has been snubbed, repeatedly by the Netanyahu government, and has now calibrated its position with that of Israel. The invitation has been amended: To resume peace negotiations without pre-conditions. The onus now is on Abbas; he is the one who has to find excuses to swallow his caveat and walk humbly back to the negotiations table.

This is why Clinton wants Arab help. To sugarcoat the offer the usual ornaments have been added; settlements are illegal, an obstacle, and the final settlement will deal with all issues; East Jerusalem, refugees, and the future Palestinian state will be born on lands which Israel occupied in 1967. It’s a measly deal that rolls back previous understandings and agreements and takes the Palestinians to square one! It asks the Palestinians to place their trust in their occupiers, the Americans and a handful of Arab states who answer to Washington.

Those who do not feel jubilant or excited at the prospects of yet another round of negotiations are many. For the Palestinians it’s déjà vu all over again; been there, done that! The fact that they will be negotiating with one of the most right-wing governments in Israel is an unwelcome bonus. The fact that the Obama administration has been so quick to change its position and avoid confrontation with Israel is frustrating. And the reality that they remain the weakest link in any future settlement weighs large on them.

There are genuine grounds for the Palestinians to be fearful of being dragged into a new episode of talks with their nemesis. For starters the Palestinians are divided, both politically and geographically, and the prospects of a reconciliation agreement being reached soon remain dim. Added to this, Abbas’ authority has been degraded over the past months and he is being challenged even by his own followers in Fatah, the largest Palestinian faction, which he heads.

In addition, his Palestinian opponents, Hamas, is fiercely against negotiations, and in spite of attempts to weaken its influence, and its control in Gaza, it is still a force to reckon with. Abbas is in no position to offer, or accept, deals that would only enrage Palestinians and drive more of them behind Hamas.

Another factor is Israel under Netanyahu, who is now hostage to his extreme right-wing supporters. He will not be allowed, even if he wants to, to make “generous” offers on Jerusalem, the settlements, refugees, final borders, statehood for the Palestinians, among others. Added to this is the fact that the Obama administration will find it easier, and safer, to apply pressure on the Palestinians rather than the Israelis.

And without meaningful American pressure, the Israelis will be in no rush to make deals with the Palestinians, regardless of deadlines and political expediency. It is most likely that Abbas will eventually yield to American and Arab pressure and climb down from the proverbial tree of conditional resumption of talks. It will be a costly move for him and his flailing Palestinian Authority. We could see the resumption of talks in a couple of weeks or more. It will be registered as a victory for American diplomacy. But then what? Negotiators have reached a stage where they cannot avoid the real issues that stand in the way of a historic settlement. Building on previous “near-agreements” they could solve all remaining issues in one or two sessions. It is here that they need, or expect, the American interlocutor to intervene.

The United States may be risking a lot by re-engaging itself and others in the peace process. The specter of failure is real enough. It will be hosting these talks, probably against the will of participants, in dangerous times when its eyes are focused on other regional challenges stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan and from Yemen to Somalia. And then again a loose rocket from Hamas, or even a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could wash away all peace talks.

How credible will the US role be? It is a question that has haunted us for many decades. The answer, alas, has been, more often than not, discouraging.

— Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Jordan.


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