Arab News
May 10, 2010 - 12:00am

A POTENTIAL four months of indirect negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis began yesterday, mediated by US Middle East special envoy George Mitchell. Like the tumbler in a complex lock mechanism, success will rely on the progressive definition of a succession of key issues. It is by far from certain that the key to open direct talks between the two sides will work, and even then there is the second bigger lock of substantive face-to-face agreement to be opened.

Perhaps however it will prove an advantage that so little is expected of the talks about talks. The presumption is that the Israelis do not want a settlement and that the longer it can be fended off the more compelling they will try to make the “facts on the ground” — the illegal settlements.

It was the Netanyahu government’s refusal to halt the construction that kept the Palestinians from agreeing to the indirect talks. Pressure from Washington has persuaded Netanyahu to announce a 10-month slowdown in new settlement activity.

The Israelis may be mindful of the danger that if direct negotiations are not agreed upon by September, the Americans may seek to impose their own solution. That indeed is already the preferred position of the Palestinians. However they know that they cannot reach this position unless they are seen to have deployed their best efforts in the indirect negotiations.

The same imperative applies to the Israelis. They will need a good excuse to escape from a process whose conclusion they do not want. That excuse could well be once again Hamas and the Gaza Strip. It was the Israeli assault on Gaza that brought the last talks to a juddering and bloody end.

Hamas does not agree with the idea of talks. Its rift with Fatah remains as deep as ever. Nevertheless there have been indications from some Hamas leaders that they might accept any outcome from final negotiations with the Israelis if it were put to the Palestinian people in a referendum. The Israelis would probably do whatever was necessary to ensure that any moderation by Hamas was brought to an end. It only requires a fatal rocket attack from Gaza or a murderous encounter with Israeli troops for Netanyahu to trot out the same old excuse of provocation and launch another deadly strike into Gaza. Poking the Hamas hornet's nest has proved always too easy in the past. Even if Hamas reined in the more radical die-hard factions, there is still the possibility of a staged attack by agent provocateurs within Gaza.

The key consideration for the Israelis is that they must be able to persuade the Obama administration that they are the innocent parties. It has to be hoped that the Americans have woken up to such ploys and will not allow the indirect negotiations to be derailed in this way. Therefore by the fall, both sides ought to be sitting down to substantive negotiations that will resolve the seemingly intractable issues, such as the future of Jerusalem and illegal West Bank settlements. But there is a very long road ahead.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017