George Giacaman
Bitterlemons (Analysis)
February 15, 2010 - 1:00am

The Palestinian leadership continues to resist ever-growing pressure to return to negotiations with Israel. And unless the international community, and especially the US, is ready to underwrite serious and substantial negotiations, embarking on a negotiations process that will likely fail could have dramatic consequences.

Last year, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the Palestinian Authority president, quickly followed the US administration in demanding a complete cessation of Israeli settlement building in occupied territory, including in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration, however, proved unable to deliver, except in a limited way. This has left Abu Mazen in a difficult position, especially given his many public pronouncements on the subject in the past several months. After all, he has a Palestinian public to worry about whose opinion, especially after the Goldstone affair, it has become more difficult to ignore.

Hence we are now witnessing an attempt to enter indirect negotiations as a way to prepare for direct talks. According to the Israeli media, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, wants such indirect talks to last only a few weeks and merely to provide a "ladder" for Abu Mazen to climb down and begin direct negotiations. Indeed, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, is in the Gulf partly to convince Arab states to pressure Abu Mazen to restart talks. It is therefore not impossible that such negotiations will start.

But what we are really witnessing is an attempt by Netanyahu to go back to the formula revealed by Yitzak Shamir after he lost power following the first peace talks in Madrid in 1991, when he said he would have let negotiations drag on for 20 years. The objective of the present Israeli government is similarly to flesh out any negotiations long enough to make it impossible for the US administration to put any pressure on Israel, i.e., at least until just before the next US presidential elections.

This, in the meantime, will allow Israel to continue the process of settling the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as indeed it is continuing to do even under the current so-called freeze, which is in any case temporary. Certainly there is no reason to believe that such negotiations will lead anywhere in the absence of concrete and concerted pressure on the Israeli government.

Abu Mazen and his advisors understand well that 18 years since the Madrid conference in 1991 we are not anywhere near a solution. The problem with the Oslo accords was that bilateral negotiations, meaning only between Palestinians and Israelis, were posited as the sole mechanism for progress. But this mechanism has led nowhere. It should be obvious that unless there is also direct American pressure on the Israeli government as a way to redress the imbalance of power--military, political or otherwise--between the two sides, there can be no agreement.

Continued negotiations without result, furthermore, are a high-stakes game for the PA. They will engender even further loss of credibility and it is not impossible that if such negotiations are entered into and then go nowhere, Abu Mazen will resign. Then we will likely see the beginning of a process in which the PA as a whole is undermined and will gradually disintegrate.

Should this happen I doubt there will be any more rounds of negotiations. A different formula will have to be devised, perhaps an imposed solution from the United Nations Security Council. This is a scenario Israel fears. But Israel also fears the only alternative in the event of failed negotiations, the dismantlement of the PA. The present Israeli government is not interested in re-occupying all the West Bank and assuming the burden of occupation. But once the security situation deteriorates, it will be forced to do so, and with the gradual dismantlement of the PA, Israel will also be forced to take on responsibility for governing.

The question is not whether to return to negotiations, but what are the requirements for success. Here the Palestinians have been very clear. First, there can be no return to square one. Second, there has to be a timeframe. Third, there have to be certain points of reference for the talks, such as international decisions regarding the conflict, including UNSC resolutions 242 and 338 as well as the Arab Peace Initiative.

These provide a necessary framework for negotiations, because negotiating in a vacuum, as we have seen, leads nowhere. But even with such a framework, there is no guarantee of success. In addition to pushing for such a framework, the US must bring pressure to bear on the Israeli government. Without such pressure, as even US officials and analysts concede, there will be no progress.- Published 15/2/2010 ©


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