Omar Karmi, Hugh Naylor
The National
March 31, 2011 - 12:00am

With the American administration consumed by popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, US efforts to push forward a Palestinian-Israeli peace process, already stalled, have receded further into the background.

Palestinians, despondent with Washington's efforts, are in turn trying to energise their pursuit of alternatives to their overreliance on US meditation.

In the process, the Palestinians risk angering not only Israel, but also the US, which remains an important donor to the Palestinian Authority.

As part of this strategy, Palestinian leaders have embarked on reviving on-again-off-again efforts at political reconciliation with Hamas, a move frowned upon in Washington, where the Islamist faction is considered a terrorist group. Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, met West Bank representatives of Hamas on Sunday in lieu of a slated visit to Gaza, where tensions with Israel have increased in recent weeks.

Mr Abbas has also strongly courted diplomatic support from Latin American and European capitals, where his political aides believe sympathy for the Palestinians runs higher than in Washington.

Talal Okal, a Palestinian political analyst who lives in the Gaza Strip, said: "There are strong indications that the American role is no longer considered fruitful by the Palestinians, and there are expectations for rising European influence. And I'm sure the Europeans are keen on taking a stronger role."

The Palestinian leadership also wants to seek legitimacy for Palestinian statehood by garnering support for formal membership in the UN and recognition by the world body of an independent Palestinian state. These moves are expected to culminate in September, when the now moribund negotiations with Israel were supposed to have been successfully concluded.

Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian negotiator in peace talks with Israel, said: "In all matters now we are proceeding on our own. On approaching the Europeans, the Russians, the next step in the UN is seeking an independent state from those nations that have not done so already."

The strategy has its risks, not least by further antagonising a hostile right-wing Israeli government that has already been harshly critical of a unilateral Palestinian diplomatic agenda it fears has increased the international isolation of Israel. Citing anonymous officials, the Associated Press reported this week that Israeli leaders were threatening retaliatory measures to the recent flurry of Palestinian diplomacy. These include unilaterally annexing large Israeli settlements in the West Bank and further restricting Palestinian access to water and Israel's ports.

The Palestinian moves also risk upsetting Washington, which contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the PA's budget and offers substantial military expertise and funding for the authority's fledgling but increasingly proficient security forces.

Last month, despite personal appeals by both Barack Obama, the US president, and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, Mr Abbas went ahead and put to a vote a Palestinian-led resolution in the UN Security Council that would have condemned Israel's settlements as illegal. The US, as the only opponent, vetoed the resolution, straining relations with the Palestinians even though it has been suggested the administration did not reach that decision with customary ease.

Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said: "I think that there was more debate about the issue than in the past. But I don't think that there was, in the end, from a political perspective, any question whether they were going to do what they did."

Mr Shaath said the problem now was of a Washington distracted by unprecedented regional turmoil and domestic issues.

"Really, what I see is an America with very little presence, rather than an America with strained relationships," he said.

Palestinians have become discouraged with the efforts of the Obama administration. The Palestinian leadership was practically forced to enter direct talks with Israel last September - after Washington had accepted an Israeli settlement construction slowdown in part of occupied territory over the comprehensive settlement construction freeze that Mr Obama had initially demanded, but few in the leadership had faith these would yield result.

The talks broke down a mere three weeks after they started, once Israel resumed settlement construction in full.

The US administration subsequently seemed bereft of ideas. Then, when unrest began to sweep the region at the start of 2011, the peace process was effectively shelved.

Mr Cook said: "I think they can be forgiven for, at the moment, not spending a whole lot of time on the [peace process]. And it's not like they were deriving any kind of political benefit or were getting anywhere."

While the US continues to fund the PA, the Palestinians feel abandoned diplomatically precisely because they placed so much faith in the Obama administration, said Hussein Ibish, of the American Task Force on Palestine, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"I think the PLO leadership feels adrift [and] that President Abbas and company really feel they went above and beyond and tried to be as co-operative as possible, and they just didn't get anywhere," he said.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation is the main umbrella body for Palestinian factions and the only internationally recognised representative of the Palestinian people. It is the PLO that is tasked with negotiating peace with Israel. The PLO, however, does not include Hamas, one of the main sticking points in unity negotiations.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017