Playing 'make believe'
The US is pushing Abbas into another dead end, observes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank
Despite official denial, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel are formulating a "shelf agreement" which both sides will consider the basis of further negotiations to be resumed in 2009.
According to well-informed sources at the Muqataa, the headquarters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Israel and the PA have come to the conclusion that a real breakthrough in the current negotiations is highly unlikely this year.
Hence, efforts will be concentrated on reaching an interim agreement or a "shelf agreement" that would keep the process going and enable both sides to claim that the peace talks didn't fail.
Coincidentally, this is what the Bush administration is demanding, at least privately, in order to save the process from the danger of complete collapse.
In truth, the Israeli-Palestinian talks, and despite the "nearness of a breakthrough", have utterly failed to tackle the main contentious issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and Jewish colonies in the West Bank.
Given Abbas's acquiescence, the very legitimacy of the PA now depends on the continuation of the talks, regardless of whether progress is made or not. Needless to say, this posture is more than good news for Israel since it allows the Jewish state to keep on building settlements in the West Bank and create more irreversible facts in East Jerusalem, all under the rubric of the peace process.
Israel also benefits from Abbas mouthing optimistic remarks about "considerable progress" at the talks. while all the time Palestinian officials keep making contradictory statements as to the status of the talks and continue their bitter struggle with Hamas. While in Rome attending a peace forum earlier this week, the Palestinian leader vowed to continue the talks, saying that the negotiation path was the only path available to the Palestinians.
Abbas normally refuses to answer questions as to what alternative the PA has in case the "negotiations path" reaches a dead end, as it virtually has. In contrast to Abbas's optimism, the chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei continues to declare, almost on a daily basis, that no progress has been made on the main contentious issues.
Last week, Qurei voiced mounting frustration with Israel's stalling tactics and lack of goodwill. "I don't know if the Israelis are serious or not, but if the continued settlement expansion is a criterion for being unserious, then certainly they are not serious about reaching a just and lasting peace with the Palestinian people."
Qurei suggested that the Israeli government was trying to draw out the talks for as long as possible in order to mentally exhaust Palestinian negotiators and Palestinians in general while at the same time continuing to create facts on the ground.
However, apart from warning that Palestinians might switch to the one-state solution strategy, Qurei refused to say if the Palestinians possessed a counter strategy to foil Israeli designs.
Actually, the PA doesn't seem to have a real counter strategy nor is it interested in creating alternatives in case the peace process ends up in failure, especially if a new more extremist government comes to power in Israel. Statements by Abbas and his close aide, Saeb Ureikat, suggest that the PA will keep indulging in peace talks indefinitely no matter what.
According to Palestinian columnist Hani Al-Masri, the PA is effectively surrendering to the American concept that the "process" must continue regardless of the outcome. "The PA realises that its financial lifeline, and therefore its political survival, depends on the continuation of the peace process."
More to the point, the PA is coming under no significant internal pressure to change course either from the Palestinian street nor from the legislative council, paralysed thanks to the mass arrest by Israel of nearly one third of its members.
The PLO, to which the PA is supposed to be at least nominally answerable, is completely subservient, politically and financially, to the PA regime. Indeed, after the PLO moved to Ramallah following the conclusion of the Oslo Accords 15 years ago, the PA and PLO became indistinguishable.
As part of the American-led efforts to keep the process "going", Abbas is due to travel to Washington later this month to discuss with President Bush the progress that has been made in peace talks with Israel. According to Palestinian sources, Bush is expected to ask Abbas to "stay the course". And most Palestinians expect Abbas to comply. Critics in the Palestinian arena, and they are many, call Abbas's upcoming visit to Washington "mere analgesics." Abbas argues there is not much he can do other than being pragmatic.
In reality, however, the matter goes far beyond being pragmatic or not. The continued failed talks with Israel serve mainly to erode and weaken the overall Palestinian position. A sign of this weakness appeared this week when Abbas reportedly said that he understood he wouldn't be able to demand the return of all the refugees. Abbas, say critics, may sound reasonable, but a skillful negotiator doesn't say such things at such a crucial time.
Abbas's statement on the refugee plight has already angered some Fatah leaders in the West Bank, including Hossam Khadr, a prominent advocate of refugee rights who was freed from Israeli custody last month. Khadr, a former member of the Legislative Council and vocal critic of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said Abbas had no right to compromise on the paramount issue of the right of return. "The refugee issue is the heart and soul of the Palestinian problem," Khadr told reporters at the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, where he lives.
He also castigated the deep security coordination between the PA and Israel, saying it only served Israeli interests. With a paralysed Palestinian parliament, and with Fatah thoroughly occupied with its enduring showdown with Hamas, many Palestinians are worried that Abbas might embark on giving far- reaching concessions to Israel.
"I am worried that he will surprise us one evening and tell us that we have to be realistic and forget about the right of return and large areas of East Jerusalem, and that we have two choices, either we accept what we can extract from Israeli hands, or remain in a state of repression and pain for the rest of our lives," said a prominent Fatah leader in the Hebron region.
Al-Masri thinks that this scenario is not far fetched. "For this leadership, the peace process has become a way of life, the talks are not a means to achieve an end; they are becoming an end in themselves. The peace process justifies the continued existence of the PA," said Al-Masri. He added that the continued process was serving the financial and other interests of certain individuals and strata who are spreading the word that there is no other alternative available, either to the leadership or to the Palestinian people at large. "For those influential people, negotiations are a way of life, and the word 'struggle' was dropped irreversibly from their lexicon."
Some Palestinian intellectuals label Abbas's approach to peace talks with Israel "pragmatic capitulation" to the Israeli-American hegemony.
Meanwhile, Abbas faces a host of immediate problems. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, seems to be counting his days as prime minister after police recommended that he be indicted on charges of graft and corruption. Olmert's increasingly heterogeneous and inharmonious party, Kadima, has been urging him to resign sooner rather than later to save face and protect the party's stature and dignity. It is not unlikely that Olmert may decide to leave office sooner than many people think.
For the time being, the most likely successor is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. However, observers in Israel believe that a government headed by Livni will be short-living and that general elections will be held probably in the first half of 2009.
Given the present political currents in Israel today, it is highly likely that fresh elections in Israel will bring the Likud back to power, probably in alliance with some of the most extreme right-wing and religious parties.
Predictably, a government formed by such parties as the Likud, Shas and pro- settler groups such as MIFDAL (the National Religious Party) and the quasi- fascist National Union will be more than just bad news for the peace process.
This is probably one of the reasons Abbas is striving to reach whatever understanding or agreement he can with the current Israeli government before it is too late.