Arab News (Editorial)
August 10, 2010 - 12:00am

When last week the Arab League backed restarting direct peace talks between the Palestinians Authority and Israel, but only when the Palestinians believe the circumstances are right, the response of Hamas was of angry rejection. The movement’s Damascus-based leader Khaled Mashaal not only said that such negotiations were illegitimate, he denied the Arab League’s right to make such a pronouncement.

That view cannot stand unchallenged. The Arab League is the only body that can legitimately represent and endorse Arab views. It is to the Arab world what the UN is to the whole world. Through decisions adopted at its meetings of Arab foreign, finance or other ministers or at summits of heads of government and state, Arab policies are made. It was the league’s summit, in 2002 in Beirut, that adopted the Abdullah peace initiative. Prior to that it was merely an idea. Likewise, the league has said the only bodies that can negotiate directly with Israel are Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Saudi Arabia stands by that policy, as do almost all other Arab states. That does not mean that there cannot be practical exceptions. Libya, despite its generally uncompromising hard line on Israel, has just released an Israeli man whom it had arrested on spying charges following negotiations between the two states. That both managed to reach an agreement is welcome. Likewise, Hamas’ virulent rejection of negotiations between the PA and the Israelis on the basis that they lack legitimacy has not stopped it negotiating a possible prisoner exchange with the Israelis.

At the moment those negotiations are at a standstill but no one questions their legitimacy. That is because the idea of exchanging Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit makes a great deal of sense. That gives it legitimacy — plus the fact that the Egyptians and the Germans are involved.

Questioning the legitimacy of talking to Israel wastes Palestinian energies and does nothing for the cause. Legitimacy is not the issue. The issue is Israeli political sabotage. The reality is that neither Hamas’ efforts at a prisoner exchange nor direct peace talks between the PA and the Israelis are happening because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not want them to happen and continually does everything to stop them happening. He has a simple objective — to expand Israel’s power and presence and prevent a Palestinian state from ever occurring while pretending that the Israelis are the moderates who are willing to talk without conditions and the Palestinians the problem. But by his record of promoting and expanding settlements is he known. Given that record, a settlement freeze — a total freeze — is not merely a reasonable demand, it is a necessary demand. Otherwise, the settlement program will be fully reactivated and peace becomes an impossibility.

What is so galling, though, is that President Barack Obama colludes in Netanyahu’s devious and dishonest game. The White House endorses the call for direct talks without preconditions and has been piling the pressure on Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to agree. It is desperate for a breakthrough in the Middle East for which it can claim credit. It wants progress at any price — except there is a most poisonous one if settlements continue to grow. It is Abbas’ humiliation, Palestinian rejection and a moral victory for Hamas. Is Washington so naive not to imagine that it is going to happen?


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