Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed
Asharq Alawsat (Opinion)
September 29, 2010 - 12:00am

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas deserves the award for the world's Worst Negotiator. Currently, he can celebrate one of two possibilities: either negotiations will be terminated, or settlement construction will be suspended. Despite my appreciation of the noble man, he made a mistake by simplifying the demands of the Palestinian people into one request; namely that all settlement constructions are ceased. This has now become the highest of his ambitions. In doing so, Abbas has pleased two parties: the extremist Israelis, and Hamas, which seeks to sabotage any negotiations that it is not a part of.

President Mahmoud Abbas turned legitimate Palestinian demands into a single issue; that of ceasing the construction of settlements, an essentially illegitimate practice. Whatever is built on illegitimate grounds is therefore also illegitimate Thus, ending settlement construction has become the highest of his ambitions, instead of issues such as the liberation of the occupied lands, the refugees' right of return, Jerusalem as the capital [of Palestine], sovereignty and the independent state. Now Mahmoud Abbas can sleep happily in the knowledge that negotiations will be ceased [because of his insistence]. Of course, whilst Abbas is sleeping comfortably, settlement construction will continue. One can be confident that he will return to the negotiations in a year’s time, and by that time the Israelis will have constructed thousands of houses, further expanded their settlements, and Obama will be busy preparing for the presidential elections. What is the value of such a demand [to cease settlement construction], which neither Yasser Arafat demanded, nor did the Syrians request it during their negotiations over the Golan Heights?

The [Israeli] settlers have celebrated Mahmoud Abbas’s ultimatum, and thanked him for his moral stance, before returning to their old practices of climbing scaffolds and mixing cement. As for the ordinary Palestinian, he continues to look forward to this opportunity, which seems to be vanishing amidst bitter disappointment. The ordinary Palestinian is conscious that his leaders will bargain for less later on, as the same old tragedy has been repeated since 1948.

The Palestinian President has put himself in a difficult corner, and he does not know how to escape it. He has wasted Obama's time, and thus missed out on American bargaining chips, which he could have used for more significant issues. It is strange that Mahmoud Abbas, furious at the fact that settlement construction is about to recommence, should also be happy because he has in fact made a considerable gain, namely that mediator President Barack Obama has reduced the negotiation timeframe to only one year, instead of two. This achievement is more important than ceasing the settlement construction. A one-year negotiation period will prevent procrastination, instigate serious negotiation and shorten settlement construction time. Most importantly, Obama will have at least a one year respite, prior to the 2012 US presidential elections.

Even if Netanyahu suspended settlement construction again, it would only be a symbolic ‘retreat’, and the suspension would last for another three months. What gains will the Palestinian delegation make if the settlement construction is frozen for another 90 days? It is for this reason that I decided to give Mahmoud Abbas the Award for Worst Negotiator in the world. Even with his insistence [to continue negotiations only if settlement construction is ceased], nobody has thanked him. Hamas claimed to have imposed such a stance upon him. Israel still challenges him, whether they freeze settlement construction or continue with it. Thus, settlements will remain the story on everyone's lips, who ask: Do caravans count as settlements? Is a bathroom enlargement in a house considered a settlement expansion? Is the construction of a school part of settlement construction? Settlements have become the story, but what about the land, Jerusalem and the refugees?


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