Khaled Abu Toameh
The Jerusalem Post (Analysis)
September 15, 2010 - 12:00am

Despite the Palestinian Authority’s tough talk on the issue of settlement construction in the past few days, Palestinian sources in Ramallah believe PA leaders will soon have to climb down from their high tree.

Even as the direct talks were under way in Sharm e-Sheikh on Tuesday, several PA officials continued to issue threats that failure to extend the moratorium on settlement construction later this month would lead to the “collapse” of the US-sponsored negotiations.

For his part, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the talks completely unless Israel agrees to extend the freeze.

The fact is that only in the past two years has settlement construction become such an overtly major issue for the Palestinians.

Some say that it’s the Obama administration that prompted the PA leadership to place the issue at center stage, and make the building freeze a precondition for talks. President Barack Obama’s public demand that Israel halt all settlement construction put the matter at the top of the agenda of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

In the past, after all, the PA negotiated with Israel even as the bulldozers were working in the West Bank and as entirely new neighborhoods like Har Homa were being built in Jerusalem.

Construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem may have bothered the PA leadership then, but it never became a major condition for pursuing the peace process.

Obama’s harsh stance led the Palestinians to adopt an even tougher policy. After all, the PA leadership can’t afford a situation where the US president appears to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians when it comes to the issue of settlements.

Obama has since climbed down, endorsing a more lenient approach on the issue. But he forgot to bring Abbas and the rest of the PA leadership back down with him.

In recent days, for all the rhetoric, there have been signs that the PA leaders seem to realize that construction in the settlements and Jerusalem will resume in one way or another.

According to informed sources in Ramallah, the PA leadership has no choice but to accept a partial freeze – one where Israel would continue to build quietly while the PA turns a blind eye.

But this will not come without a price, as far as the PA is concerned. The PA’s credibility among Palestinians has already suffered a major setback because of its agreement to launch direct talks with Israel unconditionally.

Abbas and the PA leadership had for many months been promising the Palestinians that they would never enter direct talks with Israel unless Israel halted construction in the settlements and east Jerusalem neighborhoods.

Under heavy pressure from the Obama administration, this precondition was dropped, along with others it had set over the past few months.

Now it seems highly unlikely that the Palestinians will indeed carry out their threat to walk out of the direct talks if the freeze is not extended at the end of the month. And that will further damage what’s left of the PA leadership’s credibility among its constituents.


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