Crawling on hands and knees
The build-up to the "peace conference" is wearing out Abbas's kneecaps, laments Khaled Amayreh
Apart from reiterating the same old platitudes about US commitment to a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought very little with her to the region during her latest visit this week. Speaking often as a distant third-party observer, rather than a thoroughly involved honest broker, Rice spoke in terms of what "should" and "could" and "would" be achieved at the regional-international peace conference slated to take place in Washington in November.
The phraseology she used, which obviously lacked both certainty and certitude, suggested that even she didn't really know if the conference would be a success or a failure. Indeed, her frequent reference to "the two sides" (Israel and the Palestinian Authority [PA]) gave the impression that the key to a successful conference lies not with the Bush administration, but squarely with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert on Monday said the purpose of the upcoming Washington meeting shouldn't be to make peace but rather to create a suitable environment conducive to peacemaking. For Palestinians, the obvious prevarication holds one and only message, namely that Israel is not interested in reaching true peace with them, especially one that would make Israel end its 40- year-old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
Indeed, with less than six weeks separating us from the November conference, it seems that virtually no noteworthy progress has been made in the loudly touted talks between Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. As one disgruntled Palestinian official in Ramallah put it, the talks revealed that Abbas and Olmert were talking at cross purposes. "These talks were a total failure. President Abbas wanted a concrete agreement on the core issues, namely ending the occupation, but Olmert was just prevaricating, quibbling and babbling about Hamas, isolating the extremists and Israeli good-will gestures."
Last week, officials in Ramallah warned that the PA might not attend the conference if it became clear that it would be "a talking occasion". However, the warning was largely seen as a desperate tactic aimed at getting the Bush administration to press Israel to address the final status issues, at least in order to enhance Abbas's public standing among Palestinians, especially vis-à-vis Hamas.
Interestingly, the warnings from Ramallah, coming from an "authority" whose very survival depends almost completely on Israeli and American good-will, were rebuffed rather sooner than later this week when the American secretary of state made it abundantly clear that she was washing her hands of any responsibility, that it was up to the two sides, not the Bush administration, to see to it that the conference won't turn into a mere talking occasion.
The nearly total PA dependence on the Americans to get an extremely parsimonious Israel to be more forthcoming with regard to the core issues has already forced the PA leadership to "beg for" rather than "demand" Israeli good- will, whatever that means. But, for most Palestinians and Arabs, "Israel" and "good-will" are oxymorons that shouldn't be used in the same breath.
In addition, with an election year coming up soon in the US, the Bush administration will be in a weak position to pressure Israel, even assuming its willingness and inclination, which experience shows can't be taken for granted. On 24 September, Abbas, whose main bargaining asset has been his crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, got a clear preview of the overall American position during his meeting with President George W Bush at the White House. Bush repeated the same old words about his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, leaving details to bilateral talks between the Palestinians and their occupier. "I strongly support the creation of a Palestinian state. I believe it is in the interests of the Palestinian people, I believe it is in the interests of Israel to have a democracy living next to it. Democracies living side-by-side in peace," said Bush.
Bush dutifully lauded Abbas for "fighting the extremists", a clear allusion to Hamas, but didn't utter a single word about Palestinian rights and grievances as if the Palestinians already had a state and all that they needed was to make a democracy out of that imaginary state. Of course, that democracy would have to be tailored and shaped according to the American taste and mood, because otherwise a Palestinian democracy that doesn't go with the flow, would be hounded, boycotted and strangled, as amply evident from the way the Bush administration dealt with the democratically-elected Hamas government.
The bleak prospects of a conference that almost everyone predicts will fail have already made Palestinian leaders analyse the posture the PA should assume after its likely failure. Fatah leader Qaddura Fares said the Fatah leadership should resume reconciliation talks with Hamas right after the conference. "I believe dialogue with the two movements [Fatah and Hamas] is a certain choice but I think it will be delayed until after the conference in the fall," said Fares, a member of the central committee of the Fatah movement and a close confidant of imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who many predict will succeed Abbas as the next PA president.
Fares warned that Fatah would have to reconsider its hostile stance vis-à-vis Hamas if the conference failed to achieve a concrete outcome with regard to Palestinian statehood. However, as stated above, it is unlikely that utilising the current estrangement between Fatah and Hamas as a pressure tactic to wrest concessions from Israel will work, considering the Israeli government's track record.
A deeper frustration has been displayed by other Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) factions. Jamil Majdalawi, a lawmaker representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) told Al-Ahram Weekly, "it is a foregone conclusion that the conference will be a failure. I think we need a salvation strategy that would deliver us from the state of powerlessness and reliance on an American change of mind and heart that will never happen." While blaming Hamas's "military takeover" in Gaza, the PFLP leader stressed that, "it would be a big mistake to go to the conference in Washington with our internal front deeply divided."
Similarly, Hamas has called on Abbas not to harm Palestinian national interests by allowing the Americans and Israel to give a false impression about an ongoing peace process that doesn't exist in reality. "The Palestinian cause stands to lose from these barren meetings with the Israelis and Americans. Abbas should realise the futility of relying on the US to make Israel come to terms with Palestinian rights," said Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas's spokesman in Gaza.
The mounting Palestinian disenchantment with Washington, and, of course, with Israel, seems completely justified. Israel, it is increasingly obvious, has come to view Abbas -- at least privately very much as -- a puppet leader. This week, and under this very title, Israeli commentator Gideon Levy wrote that Abbas shouldn't go to Washington. "Even his meetings with Ehud Olmert are gradually turning into a disgrace and have become a humiliation for his people. It is impossible to bear the spectacle of the Palestinian leader's jolly visits in Jerusalem, bussing the cheek of the wife of the very prime minister who is meanwhile threatening to blockade a million and a half of his people, condemning them to darkness and hunger."
Levy, writing in Haaretz, further berated Abbas for his perceived subservience to Israel and the US and for not having the courage to stand up to Olmert government's arrogance and insolence. "If Abu Mazen [Abbas's nom de guerre ] were a genuine national leader instead of a petty retailer, he would refuse to participate in the summit and any other meetings until the blockade of Gaza is lifted. If he were a man of truly historic stature he would add that no conference can be held without Ismail Haniyeh, another crucial Palestinian representative and if Israel really wanted peace, not only an 'agreement of principles' with a puppet leader that will lead nowhere, it should respect Abbas's demand."