By offering nothing new, Israel keeps wrong footing Washington, writes Khaled Amayreh from occupied Jerusalem
Palestinian officials have downplayed "the artificial optimism" stemming from increasingly hectic political movement, including a partial lifting of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and a new visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Washington.
American officials have been talking of "progress" in the so-called proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), though the Palestinian leadership politely dismisses such statements, insisting that no progress whatsoever is taking place and that Israel is continuing to pursue a policy based on provocation and prevarication.
PA official Ghassan Al-Khatib described "the pretension of progress" in talks between the two sides as "unrealistic, detached from reality and highly exaggerated".
"How can we possibly speak of progress when Israel continues build settlements, destroy Palestinian homes and evict Palestinians from the city of their birth," said Khatib, alluding to the recent Israeli decision to banish four Islamist lawmakers from East Jerusalem for refusing to recognise Israel.
Earlier, PA President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying that indirect talks with Israel were going nowhere.
Abbas is reported to have refused to move from indirect to direct talks with Israel unless three conditions are met: an Israeli undertaking to restart talks from the point where they were left off during the term of the previous Israeli government; a recognition by Israel that a Palestinian state would have to encompass an area equal in size to the territories occupied in 1967, and a general freeze of settlement expansion.
It is unlikely that Netanyahu will accept these conditions, especially the settlement freeze. His coalition partners, supported by some Likud cabinet ministers, are already demanding that the half-hearted settlement expansion moratorium, due to expire in September, not be extended under any circumstances.
The Hebrew press reported this week that at least 2,700 settler units are scheduled to be built in the West Bank as soon as the freeze ends. Haaretz newspaper also reports that settler councils throughout the West Bank are making preparations to step up settlement construction ahead of 27 September, when the current partial freeze is due to end.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington Wednesday, hopes that the alleviation of the Israeli siege of Gaza will be met favourably in Washington.
Netanyahu hopes the Obama administration will refrain from pressing Israel on ethnic cleansing measures in Jerusalem, and also on lifting the siege completely on the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli premier also hopes that Washington will help place the ball in the Palestinian court by demanding that both sides switch unconditionally to direct talks.
Prior to Netanyahu's current visit to Washington, the Israeli government published a list of goods and commodities it said wouldn't allow into the Gaza Strip.
The banned products include weapons, ammunitions, and materials that could be used to develop the military capabilities of Hamas.
Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip scoffed at the Israeli announcement, insisting that any talk of weapons and munitions was a public relations exercise to hide the real motives behind the siege.
"Since when did we ask for weapons? The Zionists are trying to create the impression in the West that the murderous blockade was in place for fear of weapons and munitions entering Gaza when the only motive behind the siege was Israel's determination to starve and torment the people of Gaza for upholding their right to freedom and dignity," says Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip.
In addition to "weapons and munitions", Israel will continue to bar the entry of building materials, including cement, concrete and steel, making it impossible to begin the long overdue rebuilding of thousands of homes, mosques, factories and other private or public facilities destroyed during the devastating Israeli blitz against the coastal enclave a year and a half ago.
Some observers in occupied Palestine interpret the relaxation of the Israeli siege as a belated acknowledgment on the part of the Israeli government of the failure and moral bankruptcy of its policy towards Hamas.
Israel had hoped the hermetic closure of the Strip, coupled with other draconian measures against the Palestinians, would prompt the Palestinian masses to rise up against Hamas and topple the Islamic-led government. Yet instead of inciting Gazans against Hamas, the siege served to steel Gazan resistance and galvanise Arab and international solidarity, the latter expressed in the dispatch of flotillas carrying humanitarian aid and culminating in the murderous Israeli assault on the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, on 31 May.
The widely-condemned attack, which occurred in international waters, resulted in the death of nine people.
Whatever understandings Netanyahu and Obama reach, they are unlikely to reinvigorate the exhausted peace process between Israel and an increasingly demoralised PA.
Obama must know that Israel is unwilling to pay the price for peace and is interested only in prolonging the status quo for as long as possible in order to create more irreversible facts on the ground in the West Bank. He must also be aware that Netanyahu is a hopeless dissembler, a politician whose words bear no weight and who thinks the conflict with the Palestinians can be contained, and even terminated, in Israel's favour through barbaric policies and a propaganda drive that tries to convince the West that Israel's apartheid regime represents the first line of defence against Islamic fundamentalism.
The balance of power between Netanyahu and Obama is already tilting in favour of the former. But Netanyahu is unlikely to be satisfied with an indecisive victory, preferring instead a knockout blow against a president who might be tempted to think that a soft glove approach to Israel will be translated into Jewish support during the next presidential election. (see pp.6 & 9-12)