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Abbas`s impossible decision
by Khaled Amayreh -
Al-Ahram Weekly
5 - 11 August 2010

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is facing a growing political dilemma that some observers suggest might even force him to resign. The dilemma stems from the impossible situation of having to balance intensive behind- the-scenes US pressure to join open-ended peace talks with Israel and pressure from the Palestinian street as well as Abbas`s own Fatah Party to stay out of talks under the present conditions irrespective of the cost.

Most Palestinians view submission to US pressure as amounting to capitulation to Israeli demands and dictates. Earlier this week, President Obama sent a letter to Abbas telling him that the PA would have to join direct peace talks with Israel or face the consequences. For most Palestinians, the word `consequences` is widely believed to be an allusion to withdrawing financial assistance paid by Washington, without which it is doubtful that the PA can survive for long.

The US pays the PA hundreds of millions of dollars per year, mainly to pay the salaries of more than 100,000 military cadres and civil servants. For the bulk of Palestinians, paying these salaries constitutes the main function, if not the raison d`ךtre, of the PA regime.

PA negotiator Saeb Ereikat spoke with unusual frankness about the `American pressure` during a television interview on the PA-run Palestine TV on 31 July. `The Americans are bullying us to join unconditional and open-ended talks which might lead nowhere. President Abbas is saying `No` but he may not be able to maintain this position for a long time without meaningful Palestinian, Arab and Islamic backing.`

According to reliable sources in Ramallah, the Obama administration would like to see the PA join direct and virtually unconditional talks with Israel without the latter meeting any Palestinian conditions, including a freeze of Jewish settlement expansion and Israeli acknowledgment that the would-be Palestinian state would be established on the basis of 1967 borders. Israel doesn`t view the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as `occupied territories` but rather as `disputed territories`.

Most Palestinian officials at the muqataa (government headquarters) in Ramallah view submission to these American demands as political suicide, not only for Abbas but for the Fatah movement as well.

According to Palestinian political analyst Hani Al-Masri, joining direct talks with Israel in the absence of solid guarantees would be a `gigantic blunder`.

He said: `I think the PA leadership would be embarking on political suicide if it agreed to enter into direct talks according to Israeli conditions, or more correctly, Israeli dictates. Such talks, even if they last for many years, would not achieve any real results for the Palestinians. Indeed, it would be more than naive to expect the international community, which has failed utterly to force Israel to freeze settlement expansion, to give up the spoils of the 1967 war and end the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.`

Al-Masri suggested that the main purpose of direct talks was to strip Palestinian negotiators of the last bargaining chips they may have -- the refugee problem. `There seems to be willingness (on the PA side) to compromise the refugee problem in exchange for the would-be state. But Israel wants to liquidate the refugee cause without ending the occupation. And above this, Israel doesn`t want to remove the settlements or recognise the Palestinian people`s right to self determination.`

The Palestinian writer, an erstwhile confidant of Abbas, urged the Palestinian leader to take a third position, namely to reject US pressure. He argued that Abbas could always confront the Americans as well as the entire international community with the fact that the vast bulk of the Palestinian people as well as the Fatah movement reject the conditions under which the PA is being asked to join direct talks with Israel.

`In any case, there is absolutely nothing that would justify `political suicide` for the sake of Obama`s eyes, the president whose administration has offered us nothing save false promises and mendacious words and speeches.`

It is not clear how Abbas will navigate his and the Palestinian people`s future now, sailing in rough seas, with little hope of safety.

On Sunday, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee, nominally the highest Palestinian decision-making body, reiterated its backing of Abbas`s position, namely that the resumption of talks with Israel would have to be based on a clear acknowledgment that the 1967 armistice line would be the future borders between Israel and a prospective Palestinian state.

Following a meeting in Ramallah, PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Palestinian position was still to insist on a Jewish settlement expansion freeze, particularly in East Jerusalem. `Without such guarantees, the talks would fail even before they start.`

Abed Rabbo added that in the next few weeks more deliberations would take place and the `overall picture` would be presented to the PLO Central Committee to take a final decision. Abed Rabbo described the guarantees Obama reportedly offered Abbas as `vague, and having more shape than substance.` `Let it be clear, the resumption of peace talks without guarantees and a time ceiling will only condemn these talks to revolving in an empty cycle and eventually meeting the same fate that previous rounds of talks met.`

The expected backing by the PLO Central Committee of Abbas`s `steadfastness` (i.e. his refusal to join direct talks with Israel without solid guarantees) could strengthen Abbas`s posture vis-a- vis the Obama administration and/or lead to the intensification of US pressure on the PA leader. Hence, the question being asked by many Palestinians is: What road will Abbas take - that which appeases Washington or that which satisfies the Palestinian people`s aspirations?

The Arab League follow-up committee, which gave Abbas an `amber light` to return to direct talks with Israel but at a time of his choosing, seemingly hoped that the Palestinians would succeed in throwing the proverbial ball back into the Israeli court. However, the committee`s decision, which has been interpreted by some Palestinian intellectuals as a betrayal of the PA leadership, seems to have further weakened the overall Palestinian stance.

One of the expressions of that assumed betrayal is that the committee failed to make a clear linkage between the resumption of talks with Israel and Palestinian demands with regard to a settlement expansion freeze and other issues pertaining to how the final status settlement would look.

Meanwhile, Hamas urged the PA to refuse to submit to American bullying, no matter what the consequences. The politburo chief of the Islamist group, Khaled Meshaal, told a rally in Damascus on Sunday that official Arab acquiescence for talks with the `Zionist regime` was worthless. `The Arab cover given to Abbas to resume talks has no legitimacy. This position was imposed on the Arabs by Washington.`

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