Mkhaimar Abusada
May 10, 2010 - 12:00am

The PLO Executive Committee's decision to approve so-called proximity talks between the Palestinians and Israelis marked a shift in Palestinian politics. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had previously stated that there would be no talks with Israel until it halts all settlement expansion, including in East Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, has not veered from his vow that building in Jerusalem is just like building in Tel Aviv.

The move is seen as a success for the US Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, who has been shuttling between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, as well as many other Arab capitals, for the past 16 months. Indirect talks will be based on more Mitchell shuttle diplomacy between Abbas and Netanyahu. In spite of this, the indirect talks can be considered a low point in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which have shifted from direct bilateral talks to indirect ones.

The administration of US President Barack Obama is confronted with a complicated situation in which both parties are not particularly interested in peace talks. During the previous Clinton and Bush administrations, the United States had to be pushed by Palestinian and Israeli interests in the peace process before Washington got involved. The Obama administration, however, considers the continuation of the stalemate in the peace process to be dangerous to its interests in the region generally.

Hamas and many other Palestinian groups have voiced their rejection of indirect talks. Hamas described the notion as absurd and argued that the move would only legitimize Israel's occupation and will be used as cover for its land confiscations, settlement expansion and other aggressive measures against the Palestinian people. The PLO argues that the move serves the Palestinian national interest and shows its willingness to reach a negotiated peace with Israel on the basis of the two-state solution. Hamas simply says the PLO should "stop selling illusions to the Palestinian people".

The PLO also says that it has received assurances from the Washington that any party that resorts to provocative measures will be publicly fingered by the US. Indeed, one positive thing about indirect talks is that the US, as represented by George Mitchell and his team, will be at the table, unlike in previous bilateral talks in which the balance of power favored Israel to dictate its will to the Palestinians on the basis of "take it or leave it". Israel negotiates for the sake of negotiating, all the while creating new facts on the ground that make it impossible for the Palestinian side to continue. This time, Palestinians hope the Americans will not allow Israel to dictate its vision of peace.

The PLO statement on the proximity talks confirmed that all final status issues--borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water and security--will be on the table. This is also a small victory for the Palestinians, because although the parameters for peace between them and Israelis are well known, the Netanyahu government would prefer to start the talks from point zero and limit the topics discussed.

The proximity talks are expected to continue for only the four months approved by the Arab foreign ministers. If they prove successful, indirect talks will be upgraded to direct talks. Netanyahu has stressed that final status issues cannot be resolved without direct negotiations. Mitchell and his team will utilize all the tools at their disposal to make indirect talks successful.

But any move on the ground by Netanyahu could endanger the talks. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat recently affirmed that Palestinians want to give negotiations a chance, but that success was mainly up to Israel, whose actions could doom the peace process. He added that the Israeli government has a choice, either peace or settlements, and it can't have both. The Palestinians do not want to be blamed for obstructing indirect talks but will not hesitate to pull out.

Hence, the chances of success depend on Netanyahu's willingness to depart from his own right-wing positions and policies. If Netanyahu chooses ideology over compromise, the results are obvious. But the price of failure will be very costly. These indirect talks mark the last chance for peace, and the Palestinians have long ago started to search for other options and scenarios.

The failure of indirect talks will harm Abbas and discredit what is left of his leadership among the Palestinians. If that happens, the United States and the international community will have to be prepared for a volatile period in Palestinian politics.


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