Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Mahmoud Abbas under pressure

The hapless president of the Palestinian Authority suddenly finds himself being got at from all sides. The torrent of abuse from his Hamas rivals within Gaza is unremitting, but he must have become used to that. Now, though, he finds himself at the receiving end of continuous and unambiguous advice from the White House, from the US special envoy George Mitchell, from the Quartet's special envoy Tony Blair, from Egypt, and shortly from David Miliband when Abbas comes to London at the end of this week.

The advice? Sit down again with the Israelis and resume the negotiations broken off in December 2008.

The problem for Abbas is that he finds himself lumbered with a burdensome legacy bequeathed by Barack Obama in his first glory days as US President. In that blissful dawn, Obama saw the world afresh. With unclouded vision, and pledged to change old and outworn American attitudes towards the Muslim world, he determined to hold out the hand, if not of friendship, at least of understanding, to Iran. In the Middle East, he would become a truly impartial player in efforts for a just peace – and to achieve this, he would set out, plainly and clearly, his position on a main bone of contention between Palestinians and Israelis – Israel's continued expansion of settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

So it was that in May 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informed the world's media that the President had told Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in face to face exchanges, that "he wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interest of the effort that we are engaged in, that settlement expansion cease."

Ten days later Mahmoud Abbas, in Washington for his first meeting with the new President, heard the pledge from Obama's own lips. So he felt himself on perfectly safe ground in declaring that he would not resume direct negotiations with Israel until they had complied with the President's demands.

The following week, President Obama flew to Cairo to launch his new programme of openness and understanding. In what must still be regarded as an historic address, Obama said the "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world must end. He called for a "new beginning"; both sides needed to make a "sustained effort... to respect one another and seek common ground". The US bond with Israel was unbreakable, he said, but the Palestinians' plight was "intolerable".

Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way one chooses to regard the matter, water continues to flow under the bridge. Events overtake aspirations. For example, it quickly became apparent that all the overtures in the world counted for nothing against the reality of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In Israel the political demand for natural growth in Jewish West Bank towns and Jerusalem neighbourhoods was intense, but Netanyahu – balancing a precarious majority in the Knesset – succeeded in imposing a 10-month freeze on building activity in the West Bank at least. And he formally accepted the concept of the two-state solution.

As for the Palestinian Authority President, he is still stuck with the Obama legacy. So far, with Hamas looking over his shoulder, as Obama recently put it, he is refusing to consider re-entering negotiations until the totality of what the US President originally demanded of Israel is achieved.

But President Obama is now seeing the world rather differently.

"I'll be honest with you," he told interviewer Joe Klein of Time Magazine, in an interview given only last week, "even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland, this is as intractable a problem as you get.

"Both sides — the Israelis and the Palestinians — have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that…

"I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high."

And that's the message that Mahmoud Abbas, sooner or later, must surely accept. Half a loaf is better than no bread.

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