Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
September 22, 2010 - 12:00am

I was in Amman last week on the same day that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton passed through for lunch with the king of Jordan and stressed how all the negotiators on the Palestinian-Israeli track were very serious about reaching an agreement.

I was also in the Jordan Valley gazing across at some of the Israeli settlements as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged not to negotiate for a moment more if the Israelis continued building settlements after their partial freeze ended this month.

On both counts, the air was full of incredulity. Neither Clinton nor Abbas resonated very much with anyone beyond their immediate circle of aides. Their activities seemed as much a made-for-television special event as a real life political dynamic anchored in their condition and the wellbeing of millions of people. Only the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed more directly associated with his citizenry and their national politics, as he pledged to continue building settlements after the freeze ends next week, in order to maintain intact his coalition of right-wing parties.

I am not a negotiations skeptic. I believe that Palestinians and Israelis are morally obligated to explore any opportunity for serious negotiations, no matter how flawed the political conditions or balance may be at the moment. Yet we should also recognize when there is progress and when there is only the illusion of progress.

The negotiations under way these days are striking for several reasons. They include the revived American mediating role that remains highly unclear in its mechanics and substantive positions, and the fact that Israeli and Palestinian leaders both are doing things they said they would not do. Contrary to their firm pledges of the recent past, the Israelis are negotiating despite occasional small projectile attacks from Gaza, and the Palestinians are negotiating despite the fact that Israeli colonization in the West Bank continues apace in several areas.

So the first lessons to keep in mind is never to attach too much importance to the statements of politicians, which they will always reverse or forget when the price is right, or they have no other option.

The most pressing issue in the coming weeks is whether the Israelis will extend their partial settlements freeze, and if they do not, what will the Palestinians do? Abbas’ pledge to stop negotiating immediately if the settlements continue is an honorable attempt to stand firm on principle and substance, and show political backbone. It is also totally unconvincing. Abbas said the same thing six months ago, before entering into proximity talks, then direct negotiations, while Israel continued doing the things Palestinians object to, including colonization, assassinations, bombings, imprisonment, house demolitions, and the siege of Gaza, to mention only the most glaring.

Abbas, with his lack of leverage over Israel, is dreaming if he thinks he can succeed in pressuring Israel when Netanyahu, with strong popular and political support, was able to withstand and then deflect the pressures put on him by a much more formidable political actor – President Barack Obama of the United States.

Israeli criminality in the colonization realm is matched by obstinacy in the ideological realm and serious muscle in the realm of political influence in Washington. Using the settlements issue as a lever in the negotiating progress has been attempted and has failed, and the Palestinian negotiators should wise up and explore a more realistic and productive approach to moving the negotiations toward some fruition.

If Abbas is going to threaten to stop negotiating in the wake of continued Zionist colonialism, he has to do something more substantial and impressive than take his ball, go home, and stop playing this game. Boycotts are the weapon of the weak. Now is the time for Abbas to get over his psychological torment for being edged off center stage by Hamas and others, and make the one promise that would both serve Palestinian national interests as well as reposition the Palestinians in the negotiating process. He should say that if he withdraws from the negotiations in a few weeks he would immediately call a series of meetings of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive and legislative councils, with Hamas and others present, to rejuvenate that which has been missing from these negotiations for several decades: a credible, single, Palestinian position anchored in inclusive consultations and consensus among all the factions, with a strong voice for the scattered refugee communities, aimed at a negotiated peace agreement based on the 2002 Arab summit peace plan.

Quitting the negotiations is a sign of senseless confusion and weakness. Regrouping with national fortitude, credibility and consensus is a sign of maturity and purpose. Now is the moment for Mahmoud Abbas to reveal in which direction he will move.


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