David Harris
July 29, 2010 - 12:00am

When foreign ministers of Arab League (AL) member states meet on Thursday, they will consider whether to approve a Palestinian move towards direct talks with Israel.

Ahead of that session, Israel, the United States and France have been trying to persuade regional players that face-to-face negotiations are the only sensible way to make progress.

However, regional experts told Xinhua on Wednesday they think the representative body of the Arab world will reject direct negotiations at this stage.

Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Cairo to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The trip was aimed at updating his host on his recent discussions with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House and, more significantly, to urge Cairo to persuade the Palestinians of the benefits of direct talks.

Netanyahu followed that journey with a meeting in Amman on Tuesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II. This session was also intended, from Israel's perspective, to put some form of pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The two leaders discussed the need to ensure direct, serious and effective negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that would address all final status issues and create a solution of two states for two peoples in which Israelis and Palestinians will live in lasting and secure peace," Netanyahu's office said in a statement issued following the talks.

The Israeli premier is anxious to win Arab support for the direct-talks approach prior to September 26. That is the date on which his own government's 10-month partial settlement freeze comes to an end. His more hawkish domestic coalition partners are warning that in line with Netanyahu's own public statement, the moratorium will come to an end on that day.

Should September 26 arrive with no direct talks in place, the ongoing indirect parley is likely to collapse, with many analysts warning of a return to popular uprising and an outbreak of violence on the part of the Palestinian public.

Netanyahu has some two months to convince the Palestinians that they can only gain from direct talks.

It would appear that he has already gained the backing of the Obama administration. The U.S. president did largely give his guest public support on the direct talks issue when the two men faced the media earlier this month.

Then on Tuesday, the State Department made clear it believes the time is nigh for face-to-face talks.

"During the course of the weekend, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched base with a number of her counterparts -- Jordan, Qatar, and others ... we have a full court press underway to see if we can move to direct negotiations. But again, I think we're hopeful that the parties will reach this point," department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters during his daily briefing.

The French, too, have joined in the calls for the early return of the parties to the negotiating table, with the Elysees Palace issuing a statement on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy after he spoke with Abbas and Netanyahu.

"He pointed out to his two interlocutors the urgency of reviving the peace process and the need for the parties to act in accordance with this objective. In this context, the president called for an early resumption of direct negotiations," read the statement.

Both the French and the Americans know that in order for the Palestinians to enter a direct parley they will have to be given firm backing.

That is why Sarkozy's statement went on to insist Israel meet Palestinian demands "to extend the moratorium on the settlement and to stop actions that affect the balance in Jerusalem. To be meaningful, these negotiations should address all elements related to final status, including issues of territory, based on 1967 borders, security and Jerusalem."

In the last few days both the French and the Americans announced the upgrading of the Palestinian diplomatic missions in Paris and Washington respectively.

Then European Union also chipped in. When its foreign policy chief was in the region last weekend she announced large financial contributions towards the building of Palestinian institutions.
However, the Palestinians are not merely seeking cash and gestures, according to Daoud Kuttab, a veteran journalist who works both in Jordan and the West Bank with Radio Al Balad.

"I don't think the Arab League or the Palestinian National Authority will agree to direct talks unless they can get assurances in advance, whether publicly stated or not, as to what will happen, especially on issues of borders and the general map of the Palestinian state," he said on Wednesday.

Shafeeq Ghabra, the founding president of the American University of Kuwait, shared Kuttab's pessimism. He believed the problems lie with Netanyahu's domestic problems and his government 's expansionist agenda.

"The existing government in Israel is weak and extreme. The Palestinian National Authority is not able to protect Palestinians in the West Bank from Israeli expansion and settlements ... Israel is preoccupied with petty policies and its colonization of the Palestinian people," he said.

As a result, he is of the opinion that there is no basis for negotiation at the moment and there is no reason for the AL to sanction talks.

"Israel is the stronger party and has not yet decided to use this to gain long term peace," he said.

However, in Israel, the argument is that it is the Palestinians who are foot dragging, while the Israelis are really trying to reach a deal, perhaps within a year, as Netanyahu said in the U.S. earlier this month.

The frustration on Israel's part was displayed on Israel Radio on Wednesday morning when Netanyahu's deputy Silvan Shalom said he cannot understand why if the Palestinians are serious about peace they continue to add conditions ahead of direct talks.

Shalom is certainly a skeptic and attacks his boss from the right, seeing himself as a rival candidate to Netanyahu for the leadership of their Likud party. Yet his irritation at the Palestinian position does appear to reflect that of many Israelis, including plenty who favor advancing the peace process.

"Direct talks are in everyone's interest. We've been waiting for them for 18 months. The Palestinians have got used to the idea of not sitting with us," Shalom said.

He listed what he sees as three Palestinians conditions for talks that he deems "impossible." The Palestinians, he said, want the talks to resume from where they left off with the previous Israeli government, they want them to be based on a return to the 1967 borders, and a continuation of the settlement construction freeze.

Shalom's unwillingness to accept these conditions sums up Netanyahu's domestic conundrum. On the one hand if he is serious about talks he knows he has to end the moratorium and agree to discuss borders based on 1967, on the other that could signal the collapse of his current coalition.

That is why he is so anxious to push ahead as soon as possible and, likewise, that explains the skepticism on the part of the Arab world and the reason the analysts predict the rejection of direct talks when the AL meets on Thursday, despite all the international pressure.


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