Omar Karmi
The National
July 9, 2010 - 12:00am

From Ramallah to Gaza, Palestinian reactions to the announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Washington that Israel wants to move immediately to direct negotiations may best be described as a collective shrug of the shoulders.

There is “nothing new” in any of the statements that have come out of Washington, said Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian government’s media office in Ramallah.

Mr Netanyahu “is simply trying to ease international pressure on Israel” after its flotilla raid, said Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza government. “Nothing will come of these talks in Washington.”

In Ramallah, seat of Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, officials are waiting for “tangible signs” that Israel would be serious about direct negotiations. In Gaza meanwhile, Hamas officials say outright that the current Israeli government is not able or willing to make peace.

“Palestinians have negotiated for the last 18 years, and what has been achieved,” asked Mr Yousef. “There is no progress, so what is the significance of direct talks other than to deceive the world into believing there is progress.”

Mr Khatib said the Palestinian side was willing to go to direct negotiations, but only after progress had been made in indirect negotiations, a condition it has maintained since the talks were announced.

“Not only has there been no progress, the Israeli side has not taken any initiative whatsoever in the proximity talks,” said Mr Khatib.

“The Americans invited the two sides to present their positions on security and borders and the Palestinian side complied. But there was nothing from the Israeli side.”

Underlining the lack of progress, the PLO yesterday released a document listing what it described as provocative Israeli measures taken during the span of the talks. The list includes the number of Palestinians killed or injured by settlers or soldiers, the number of arrests, in addition to a breakdown of a number Israeli army incursions in both the West Bank and Gaza. The document also highlighted continued movement restrictions on Palestinians, cases where residency rights for Palestinian Jerusalemites were taken away as well as the continued construction of Israel’s separation barrier, 85 per cent of which is planned for inside occupied territory, and settlement construction.

Mr Netanyahu went to Washington a week after the ruling committee of his Likud Party voted to oppose extending Israel’s settlement construction slow-down in the West Bank, which runs out at the end of September. Mr Netanyahu will have used that vote to engender a sense of urgency in the US administration that without direct negotiations, the Israeli right will not be denied.

Palestinians are not impressed.

“The level of settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem actually accelerated after the so-called freeze,” said Mr Khatib. “There certainly has been no freeze. The date [in September] is not the point. The point is seriousness, and this Israeli government has shown no seriousness in indirect negotiations, so why should direct talks be any different?”

Mr Khatib also said he did not think the Obama administration would push hard for the sides to sit down together just yet, a point also made by Mr Yousef in Gaza.

“There are mid-term elections in November in the US. Mr Obama needs to strengthen his party and cannot afford to lose the Jewish vote.”

As for Mr Netanyahu’s stated willingness to talk to Hamas, should the Islamist movement recognise Israel, Mr Yousef bristled.

“There is no people under occupation who will recognise their occupier. We are under occupation, and we are not obliged to recognise that occupation. The occupation has to end. If we have a free and independent Palestinian state, then this question can be raised. When we are on an equal footing, then we can talk.”


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