Proximity talks won't help

February 20, 2010

Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, is in deep trouble. He is in search of a strategy. After visits to Germany, Britain and Russia in recent months, and consultations with Arab leaders, he is coming to Paris on Sunday and Monday in what looks like an increasingly desperate bid for support.

But it is not at all clear that French President Nicolas Sarkozy can help him, so long as Abbas himself is uncertain how he wishes to proceed. His interlocutors will want to hear a clear statement of the practical steps he envisages to break out of the current impasse.
Abbas' situation is unenviable. Palestinian statehood is slipping from his grasp. The two-state solution — internationally recognized as the only viable solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — seems more than ever a mirage, as Israel continues its relentless seizure of Occupied East Jerusalem, as well as the consolidation and expansion of its West Bank colonies.
What is Abbas to do? His biggest disappointment lies with the U.S. After raising Palestinian hopes a year ago by calling for a total halt to Israeli colonies, President Barack Obama then dashed them by accepting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's partial, 10-month freeze as the best that could be obtained. It would seem that not even the U.S. can stem Israel's voracious hunger for land.
Meaningless exercise
The U.S. is now pressuring Abbas to enter into ‘proximity talks' with Israel — that is to say indirect, American-mediated negotiations. But Washington has provided no clear terms of reference or guarantees as to the outcome. Such talks are therefore widely seen as yet another meaningless exercise, which could only further damage the Palestinian leader's battered credibility.
From Abbas' point of view — a view shared by many Arabs — Obama has collapsed in the face of Israeli intransigence. He seems, indeed, to have adopted Israel's terms, not only with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also the related subject of Iran.
Meanwhile, Abbas' greatest liability is the disarray in Palestinian ranks, notably the feud between Fatah and Hamas which, by providing Israel with the cynical argument that it has no ‘peace partner', continues to do the greatest damage to Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
Abbas is well known for opposing ‘violent’ resistance to Israel — the main cause of his quarrel with Hamas — pinning his hopes instead on negotiations. The fact that these have yielded nothing over the past several years has gravely weakened him. This last year, encouraged by Obama's early stance, he vowed not to re-enter negotiations unless Israel agreed to a total colony freeze. But faced with U.S. pressure, he is being forced to soften his position — at the risk of facing more opprobrium from Palestinian militants.
If indirect talks are nothing but a trap — devised only to relieve Israel of American pressure — shouldn't Abbas make a bold break with the past? What if he were to announce the following program, as some of his advisers are said to be urging?
• His first priority should be to arrive at a common stance with Hamas, doing his utmost to bridge the small remaining gap between them over the Egyptian reconciliation document. In Paris he should plead for France to engage in a dialogue with Hamas and press for a lifting of the Israeli siege on Gaza. Drawing Hamas into the peace process is an essential condition for success. Peace talks without the participation of Hamas — or at least its explicit consent — would lead nowhere.
• Abbas should urge Obama to make a direct appeal to the Israeli public in favor of peace — over the head of the fanatical colonists and of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. Obama has repeatedly attempted to persuade the Arab and Muslim world of his friendship — although he has so far done little to prove it — but he has not yet preached the benefits of peace to the highly skeptical Israelis. An appeal by him could yet turn the tide.
• Abbas should boldly declare that he has had second thoughts about refusing to negotiate without a colony freeze. Instead, he should say that he will give negotiations with Israel one last chance, but will set a strict time limit. If no substantial progress is achieved within one year, he will break off the talks and demand that the UN Security Council address the conflict. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council has the power to ‘determine the existence of any threat to peace' and take necessary action ‘to restore international peace and security.'
• Finally, Abbas should reject negotiations mediated by the U.S. alone. A wider international involvement is required, perhaps spearheaded by France and Russia, who could jointly sponsor a peace conference either in Paris or in Moscow. Such a multilateral framework for the talks would give the Palestinians some assurance of not being bludgeoned into a deal against their will.
Will Abbas seize the initiative in some way such as this? If he does not — if he meekly submits to the empty formula of ‘proximity talks' — the Palestine cause will simply slip further down the slope into ultimate oblivion.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.
(Source: Gulf News)