Ben Lynfield
The Christian Science Monitor
August 20, 2010 - 12:00am

There was little for Palestinians to be upbeat about Friday as they waited for an official invitation to join Israel at resumed direct peace talks to be hosted by President Obama on Sept. 2.

The so-called Middle East Quartet of the European Union, United Nations, United States, and Russia that act as Israel-Palestine peace mediators issued a statement Friday in which they reaffirmed "their strong support for direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians to resolve all final status issues" that should "lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state... which can be completed within one year."

If Palestinians agree to attend, it will be the first such negotiations in a year and a half. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat told Reuters that the statement was a positive step but he didn't comment on the invitation to resume talks on Sept. 2.

"The most important thing now is to see to it that the Israeli government refrains from settlement activities, incursions, fait accomplis policies," he said.

His remark hints at the potential danger for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who may pay a heavy price for agreeing to resume talks despite the prospect of renewed Israeli settlement expansion in September and widespread skepticism among Palestinians that talks will yield results.

Palestinian politicians and analysts say that any breakthrough is highly unlikely, and there is a sense among many Palestinians that the talks are being renewed on Israeli rather than Palestinian terms.

''This is political suicide for Abbas, it will weaken him, not only in the face of Hamas but also from within Fatah,'' says Hani Masri, director of the Badael think tank in the West Bank capital of Ramallah. ''People will see the settlements continuing to be built and his credibility will come to its lowest point. The [Palestinian] Authority will get weaker and weaker.''

Fatah is Mr. Abbas' political party while Hamas is the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip.

The return to direct talks marks a stark turnaround from Abbas's earlier statements that no negotiations would happen until all Jewish West Bank settlement was halted. Palestinians see settlements as eating away at the territory of their future state, and so see talks as useless in the face of their expansion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to halt all construction, although in November 2009 he did agree to a limited slowdown of building that is due to expire on Sept. 26.

The Obama administration, which initially appeared to back Abbas's demand for a halt in Israeli settlements, has since softened its position. The Middle East Quartet's statement did not explicitly repeat earlier calls for a settlement freeze.

''Abbas is so weak he will go back to the negotiations even though he knows he will gain nothing," says Hassan Khreisheh, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Tulkarem in the West Bank.

Hamas's prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said "there is no use at all in resuming the negotiations."

The last round of direct talks was held in December 2008 between Abbas and then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Abbas ended negotiations that month when Israel launched a devastating Army operation in Gaza. Indirect contacts only resumed in May 2010, with each side holding separate negotations with US envoy George Mitchell.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said he has not seen the invitation and does not know when it will arrive. Israeli officials said Thursday they wanted no preconditions for resuming the talks.


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