The way the major mass media tells it, the only significant dissenting Palestinian voice about the wisdom of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accepting the invitation to travel to Washington for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama is the militant group Hamas.
Not by a long shot.
Eleven groups, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the General Command and others have called the negotiations under the present setup unwise. They cite a threat of subjecting the rights of the Palestinian people to the dictates of the U.S. and Israel while the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories continues and the siege of Gaza is maintained. Their recent joint statement went on to say that the process intends to create further “facts on the ground,” whereby the military occupation of Palestinian land is legitimized.
“We have followed with great concern the increasing external pressure, especially from the U.S. and Israel, on the PLO leadership to shift from indirect negotiations (which have not resulted in any progress) to direct negotiations without clear and binding terms of reference regarding a complete halt of all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory – including in Jerusalem,” said Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, a member of the Palestinian Parliament. “The terms of reference should be based on international law and UN resolutions and to include a predetermined timetable to reach a final status agreement. The agreement will necessarily include ending the Israeli occupation of all territories occupied in 1967 and enabling the Palestinians to exercise the Right of Return, right to self-determination, and the right to an independent and sovereign state in the territory occupied in 1967 – with Jerusalem as its capital.”
On August 4, jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi said talks with Israel have reached an impasse and their continuation harms Palestinian national interests. Speaking through his lawyer, the Palestinian leader sometimes referred to as the Nelson Mandela of Palestine, lashed out at the prospect of more of what he called “fruitless negotiations.”
Barghouthi called on rival Palestinian factions to enter into a unity agreement and “reactivate” the popular resistance movement in cooperation with international solidarity movements as a viable alternative to negotiations. “I hereby say clearly that neither direct nor indirect negotiations are feasible because there is no partner on the Israeli side. Israel has no leaders like Charles de Gaulle or Frederik de Klerk, but instead there are extremist leaders who are adherent to a mentality of occupation, settlements, and racism,” he said.
Fatah, the largest Palestinian resistance group, is clearly divided on the subject of the Washington negotiations. For its leadership, represented by Palestinian Authority President Abbas, another round of failed peace talks “could spell political disaster,” Edmund Sanders wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week. “Abbas has bet his career on renouncing violence and pursuing peace talks with Israel. But after nearly two decades of negotiations, Palestinians still have no state and frustration on the street is high.”
It is against this backdrop that Abbas will arrive in the U.S. capitol (assuming the trip actually does take place) Thursday.
A key element in the maneuvering undertaken to bring the “face-to-face” negotiations about was making certain no objectives were spelled out in advance, that there was no diplomatic framework for the talks. As of this writing there’s isn’t even an agenda.
Part of the backroom dealing leading to the announcement of the Washington talks involved the sidelining of the quartet of Middle East peacemakers — the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. The group issued a statement of support for the talks, asserting they should “lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and result in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state.” The Palestinian side welcomed the Quartet’s statement, however it was not mentioned when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the scheduled negotiations, emphasizing that there were no “pre-conditions.” On Saturday, the EU said it will not participate in the Washington talks and that its foreign policy coordinator Catherine Ashton will be in Beijing when they get under way.
The French government complained over the weekend that the EU is being shut out of the Washington doings. “It would be a shame if there were no European representation,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a speech Friday to French ambassadors, adding that he had written a letter to Ashton expressing his concern.
According to a Channel 2 report, Prime Minister Netanyahu has assembled the team that will manage Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians. Yaakov Hadas and Daniel Taub will represent the foreign affairs ministry in the negotiations, and Yitzhak Molcho is set to lead the team.
The major reason for the widespread pessimism surrounding the upcoming talks is the reality that the seemingly best laid plans could come to naught about three weeks after they get underway. The Palestinians have said they will continue to take part only if the current ten month moratorium on Israeli building expansion in Jerusalem is extended. In a letter to world leaders, US President Obama, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the EU’s Ashton. President Abbas said, “A decision to continue settlement construction would mean Israel decided to stop negotiations, because talks cannot continue if settlements continue.” On extending the moratorium Moshe Taalon, Strategic Affairs minister in the Netanyahu government, has said, “The prime minister is opposed to it. He said that clearly. The decision was for 10 months. [On] Sept. 27, we are immediately going to return” to construction and “Jerusalem is outside the discussion.”
The news agency AFP called the resumption of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians a “diplomatic success “ and “a welcome diplomatic coup for US President Barack Obama,” and then add the caveat: “as long as negotiators steer clear of well-known obstacles, political observers said.”
“We are going forward with this with a strong sense that these talks can succeed,” Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan told reporters. “There are a number of issues that are outstanding,” he added. That’s actually a rather breathtaking understatement.
The central question hanging over the diplomacy remains: the occupation. There is a clear, international consensus – embraced by the vast overwhelming majority of governments — that the Israeli occupation over Palestinian territory captured in the 1967 war must end and that Israeli forces must withdraw and Palestinian self-determination guaranteed in the West Bank and Gaza. It is spelled out in United Nations Resolutions 22 and 338 and is contained in every important peace proposal emanating from Arab governments over recent years. Abbas told the Quartet the Palestinians would abide by UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, the Road Map agreement, the Arab Peace Initiative, the Madrid conference, and an agenda for direct talks which include the issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlement, refugees, security, water, and prisoners.
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, told the New York Times, “Abbas wanted a clear reference to the 1967 lines; instead he was given 12 months to continue making his case in the hopes that the Americans will intervene decisively.”
In the questionable likelihood that the Jerusalem settlement issue can be finessed, the “negotiations” could continue over the year President Obama has allotted for a settlement but without a firm commitment to end the occupation, no “peace process” is going anywhere.
“As the caravans of Middle East peace negotiators rumble into Washington next week for the umpteenth time, the pervasive cynicism and sense of deja vu all over again is overwhelming – and with good reason,” wrote David Garner, Financial Times International Affairs editor August 25. “The Middle East peace process long ago turned into a tortured charade of pure process while events on the ground – in particular the relentless and strategic Israeli colonization of occupied Palestinian land – pull in the opposite direction to peace. ‘We have all been colluding in a gigantic confidence trick,’ is how one Arab minister puts it, ‘and here we go again.’”
“While many factors had combined to hand veto powers to rejectionists on both sides, the heart of the question remains the continuing Israeli occupation. It is essential to remember that the biggest single increase of Jewish settlers on Arab land – a 50 per cent rise – took place in 1992-96 under the governments of peace-makers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres at the high-water mark of the Oslo peace accords. Many Israelis will point to the perfidy of the late Yassir Arafat, who wanted to talk peace but keep the option of armed resistance dangerously in play. But what killed Oslo was the occupation. The second intifada that erupted a decade ago was essentially the Oslo war.”
“A decade on, the Israeli settlement enterprise has turned the occupied West Bank into a discontinuous scattering of cantons, walled in by a security barrier built on yet more annexed Arab land and criss-crossed by segregated Israeli roads linking the settlements. Last month, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, published a study showing Israel has now taken 42 per cent of the West Bank, with 300,000 settlers there and another 200,000 in East Jerusalem. The siege of Gaza has turned that sliver of land into a vast, open-air prison.”
“The main feature of the present situation is the disconnect between the high politics of the utterly discredited peace process and these – in Israeli parlance – ‘facts on the ground,’ ” wrote Gardner.
“A negotiated resolution,” continued Gardner, “means two states living in peace and security, and a Palestinian homeland on the 22 per cent of Mandate Palestine taken by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. East Jerusalem would serve as the capital of the West Bank and Gaza, with marginal land swaps to preserve some Israeli settlements near Jerusalem. But what does Mr. Netanyahu mean?
“He has been most clear on what he does not mean. For a start, he has set his face against any concessions on Jerusalem. He wants to keep most settlements except for the far-flung ‘ideological’ ones and the 100-plus ‘outposts’ established as pawns to be traded once the chess game began. His idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state is more like a sort of supra-municipal administration than a self-determined, independent government.
“Will he surprise us, on the hackneyed Nixon and China principle that holds it is politicians of the right who most easily close difficult deals? There is little to suggest that.”
Gardner continued, “The thinking of Mr. Netanyahu, son of a celebrated promoter of Greater Israel, has always been profoundly irredentist. While his nationalist Likud faces the constraints of being in coalition with an assortment of ultra-rightist and ultra-orthodox parties as well as Labour, that was plainly his choice; the centrist Kadima party was (and remains) an alternative. To be fair, Israel’s electoral system – with a low threshold for entry into the Knesset that makes multi-party coalitions inevitable – means lobbies such as the settlers can take the national interest hostage. But Mr. Netanyahu magnifies this by his choice of partners and by diligently firing up the ultra-hawks in the pro-Israel lobby in the US.
“As risks he has taken for peace, Exhibit A is the much-hyped moratorium on settlement-building, which expires next month and has, in any case, been speciously interpreted. While the bulldozers to build settlements have been idling, moreover, the bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes have been roaring: the rate of demolition in and around Jerusalem has doubled this year, while the army has just razed the village of al-Farisiye in the Jordan Valley, in line with Mr. Netanyahu’s strategically obsolete obsession with keeping the valley as Israel’s eastern border.
“As diplomacy struggles to keep alive the viability of a two-state solution, three rival systems of control have crystallized in the occupied territories that would make up a future Palestinian homeland: the settlements; the crimped Palestinian Authority of Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad; and then Hamas, which Israel and its Arab and western allies have tried and failed to marginalize. Time is short for a negotiated outcome; it may even have run out.”
“The outlines of a deal are clear, in the (Bill) Clinton parameters of 2000 and Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, endorsed by 22 Arab and 57 Muslim countries (as well as Hamas, as part of the 2007 Mecca accord),” wrote Gardner. “There has to be an end to the occupation, and the US and Quartet cannot just allude to this; they must demand it.”
President Obama knows all this. The question now is: will he act decisively or will he facilitate a farce which accomplishes nothing but raising false hopes and the illusion of progress extending past the November elections? The ball’s in his court. He can act as most of the world wises he would, or he could prolong the agony and raise the risk of more violence in a region that has seen more than its share. Wish I were more optimistic.
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