Arab News (Editorial)
August 2, 2010 - 12:00am

Suddenly the mood music for a resumption of direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis has changed key and grown louder. The Arab League Thursday endorsed such negotiations subject to Palestinian judgment on timing. It would seem Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s speculation that direct talks could be under way by the middle of this month, was not merely diplomatic window-dressing.

However, it would be wrong for all those who long for a just Palestinian settlement to raise their hopes too high, if indeed at all. The problem is that we have been here too many times before. On each occasion what has happened is that the Palestinians, having been drawn forward by encouraging noises from the Israelis, have seen the prospect of a deal evaporate like mirage, because the Israelis have acted in some way that is unacceptable to the Palestinian side. It might have been the continued construction of illegal West Bank settlements, the building of the illegal wall or a violent and bloody reaction to an apparent rocket attack from Gaza, which might very well have been organized by Israeli agents provocateurs within the Hamas-controlled enclave.

What opens this latest initiative to even greater doubt was the revelation from chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, that fully two months ago, President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell received from the Palestinians a definitive paper on their negotiating position in direct talks. Eight weeks later there has still been no response from the Israelis. Instead it has become clear that the White House has been exerting pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas threatening that US-Palestinian relations would suffer unless direct talks resume soon.

Obama’s attitude is disheartening.

His administration had originally deplored the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem but met with insult and obduracy from Netanyahu. Abbas, no doubt encouraged by Washington’s stance, felt able to make a settlement-freeze a precondition of resumed talks. Now the Americans seem to have resiled from their original position and instead turned the heat from the Israelis to the Palestinians.

It must be hoped that Obama is calculating that the big issues can be addressed in substantive talks and not deployed as preconditions. If Abbas goes along with this, he is running a political risk in that many ordinary Palestinians have backed his conditionality approach. Hamas, meanwhile, seemingly remains as set against any talks as it is against the rival Fatah that is dominant in the Palestinian Authority-administered West Bank.

If, and it still has to be a big if, any deal emerged from direct talks, it would still need to be accepted by Hamas, which as long as it is excluded from the political process, where it won a place in a fair general election, seems most unlikely. Therefore Washington would seem to be driving Abbas toward negotiations that one way or another could easily end up in humiliation for the Palestinian Authority and further radicalization of ordinary Palestinians who finally despair of any just and lasting outcome to talks.


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