Thursday, 4 February 2010

Olive Branch or Poisoned Chalice?

Today’s the day! The day, that is, when Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, was due to give an official response to the US idea of “proximity talks” – the second-best substitute that has emerged for the far preferable face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the PA. So far, no news.

One stumbling block to the reopening of the stalled discussions – broken off in December 2008 – has been the reluctance of Abbas to compromise on an explicit commitment, given by President Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shortly after Obama took office. They both said, in as many words, that the policy of the new administration would be to require a complete cessation of construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Abbas, who met the President shortly afterwards and had the policy confirmed in person, understandably felt himself on strong ground in making it a prerequisite for reopening direct talks. Little could he have foreseen that, after a year in office, political realities would lead the President to retreat from that early optimism. In a newspaper interview marking the first anniversary of assuming the presidency, Barack Obama admitted that his expectations had been too high. Benjamin Netanyahu had gone as far as he dared, short of fracturing his fragile coalition and bringing down his administration, by declaring a freeze on West Bank settlement construction for a period of ten months. He had already imposed severe strains on his government by announcing in June 2009 that he was now in favour of the two-state solution – subject to the satisfactory outcome of negotiations.

Abbas, meanwhile, himself subject to denunciation from Hamas for contemplating face-to-face talks with Israel in the first place, felt he could not succumb to the new, and more realistic, US approach on settlement activity. Hamas-ruled Gaza would reject any return to negotiations on those terms (indeed on any), and seek to depict it as a sell-out by the PA. It was for this reason that US special envoy George Mitchell came up with the idea of using the “proximity talks” device – a technique pioneered by Turkey, acting as mediator, to maintain an on-going, oblique dialogue between Israel and Syria.

But perpetual stalemate does not suit Abbas, who has made his policy the pursuit of national PA goals through negotiation with Israel and the international community. Which no doubt explains the reports earlier in the week that at last he is tempering his absolute refusal to return to peace talks with Israel before a complete freeze on settler construction is in place. Last Sunday he told the Guardian newspaper (London) that he would accept a temporary freeze – perhaps three months – provided East Jerusalem was included in the ban. The next day he repeated the idea in Berlin, following a meeting with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Compromise is the name of the game, but the question is whether Benjamin Netanyahu is in a position to pluck this olive branch from Mahmoud Abbas’s fingers, or whether – to mix metaphors – he views the new proposal as a poisoned chalice. Follow one course, and direct face-to-face talks between Israel and the PA might be resumed; follow the other, and all parties might have to fall back on the “proximity talks” substitute, for a time at least.

The next few days should show which way the wind is blowing.

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