Having declared its failure to convince Israel to renew a settlement expansion freeze, even for a limited period of 90 days, and with Israel defiantly rebuffing a scandalous US armament offer along with excessive diplomatic concessions, the Obama administration has once again dispatched Middle East Envoy George Mitchell to Israel-Palestine in another last ditch effort to salvage the effectively dead peace process.
As is customary, Mitchell held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. However, it once again emerged that Mitchell carried nothing new with him, which led his hosts in both West Jerusalem and Ramallah to receive him with not inconsiderable ambivalence and perhaps a whiff of contempt.
Netanyahu, conscious of -- or perhaps capitalising on -- his victory over the Obama administration, at least with regard to the settlement- expansion issue, spoke of his readiness to discuss, not only the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also `all essential Middle East issues`. Mitchell proposed a return to the so-called `proximity talks` but was told, especially in Ramallah, that it was unlikely for indirect talks to succeed where direct talks didn`t.
Palestinian leaders told the US envoy that Washington would have to give the Palestinians real guarantees, halt Israel`s settlement construction, and refrain from discouraging other states from recognising the would-be Palestinian state. The US has decried the recognition of Palestine by two South American states, Brazil and Argentina, as counterproductive and untimely. Mitchell told Palestinian leaders: `I understand you are angry and disappointed, but I promise you that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will spare no effort to advance the peace process and see to it that a viable Palestinian state sees the light as soon as possible.`
Not even Mahmoud Abbas was impressed or flattered by this talk. A close aide to Abbas who asked for anonymity said, `We have been told the same thing a hundred times. Does he think that we are kids who can be pacified or tricked with a handful of sweets?` Yet this is exactly what Mitchell seems to be doing, at least judging from the outcome of his numerous trips to the region; namely, keep the process going, even if zero achievement looms on the horizon.
This American approach, even if based on some goodwill, is infuriating Palestinian leaders while a growing number of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials are urging Abbas to stop `chasing the American illusion`. Last week, it was reported that the PLO, including its mainstream faction Fatah, was pushing for a unilateral end to all Oslo and roadmap commitments, including security coordination with Israel.
`We can`t remain committed to agreements which the Israelis themselves don`t keep. One party can`t remain committed while the other party has even cancelled them,` Yasser Abed Rabbo, senior aide to PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, said.
However, ending security agreements with Israel would constitute a kind of political suicide for the PA, as Israel would be forced to reoccupy those parts of the West Bank that are symbolically controlled by the PA government. This is why the Israeli government doesn`t take such PA pronouncements seriously.
An Israeli source, quoted by the right-leaning newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, was quoted as saying that `we hear these sorts of things now and again from the Palestinian side, that Abbas will resign, that they are going to dismantle the PA, that they are going to take everything to the UN, that they are going to give up on a two-state solution. But they are not really serious.`
Earlier, the PA reacted angrily to the announced failure of the Obama administration, saying it was inconceivable that the only superpower in the world would declare its failure to pressure Israel.
PLO officials also reasserted their commitment to the right of return pursuant UN Resolution 194 that stipulates repatriation and indemnification for Palestinian refugees. The PA, especially since the conclusion of the Oslo Accords, has shown a certain propensity to compromise -- or at least show flexibility -- with regard to the plight of the refugees.
Reassertion by the PLO of key issues such as the right of return as well as the increasing rejection of the concept of land swaps shows that the PA-PLO might radicalise its stance vis-א-vis peace with Israel, even to the point of restarting armed resistance, especially if the peace process continues to revolve in an empty cycle.
Moreover, many Palestinians are now accusing Washington of not taking the cause of peace in Palestine seriously enough.
The scenario the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah seems to be counting on for now is the creation of momentum towards international recognition of a prospective Palestinian state. Initially the European Union (EU) said in a statement that it might recognise such a state within a year or two if US-led peace efforts reached a dead end. However, EU officials later clarified that European recognition wouldn`t be forthcoming soon, lest it undermine ongoing peace efforts.
However, there are little or no real peace efforts that would be undermined by possible European recognition of a Palestinian state in what one Israeli journalist described as a `grab-what-you-can atmosphere`. All this while government-backed settlers are carrying out the most frantic settlement construction campaign since 1967. Hence, it would be more likely that European recognition of a Palestinian state would disrupt manifestly illegal settlement activities rather than peace efforts.
To divert attention from its rather humiliating failure to get Israel to freeze settlement expansion, the Obama administration is reviving as new an old proposal for sidestepping the settlement-freeze issue and instead concentrating on other issues. Other issues include refugees, Jerusalem, and borders, and have been discussed ad nauseam since the early 1990s with Israel refusing to give up its occupation. Far from that, Israel, with US acquiescence, continued to narrow Palestinian horizons to the extent that the two-state solution has been virtually outdated.
In this light, the PA is likely to re-evaluate its stance in the upcoming weeks and might opt to urging more countries -- especially heavyweight states such as China and India -- to lend recognition to a Palestinian state. This scenario is increasingly favoured by many in Ramallah`s leadership circles, especially after Brazil and Argentina recognised Palestine on the basis of 1967 borders. An additional reason taking this path is the growing certainty that the United States can`t help to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians.