February 2, 2010 1:02:06 am
A year after he promised to put peace between Israel and the Palestinians near the top of his agenda,Barack Obama is still struggling to get negotiations going again. His envoy,George Mitchell,has been shuttling between Israels prime minister,Binyamin Netanyahu,and Mahmoud Abbas in an effort,so far in vain,to lure the Palestinian president (pictured) back to the table. What more can he do?
Mr Mitchell has veered away from trying to clinch deals over such big issues as the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or devising ways of sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem. Instead he has been trying to get both sides to take more modest measures to build confidence: an exchange of prisoners; a deal to let cement into Gaza (hitherto banned because it may,say the Israelis,be used to build launch-pads for rockets); and Israeli agreements to give back a bit more land to the Palestinians and to stop its forces raiding Palestinian towns in the West Bank.
But Mr Abbass people say none of this would be enough to bring him back to the table. Renewing negotiations,they say,would merely give Israel the cover of Palestinian acquiescence to let it build more Jewish homes on Palestinian land. Indeed,they point out that settlements have in the past tended to expand even faster when a peace process is under way. The more we negotiate,the more we lose, says a Palestinian former negotiator.
But some Western diplomats and Palestinian officials hint that Mr Abbas,with a helping hand from Arab states,is quietly poised to climb down. They say he is shelving his previous demand for a total settlement freeze and will consent to a plan to set up low-level or indirect talks,to save the Palestinian leaders face. Mr Abbas,they say,knows he will not find a more sympathetic American president than Mr Obama,so fears frittering his time away. Moreover,the Palestinian Authority (PA),which Mr Abbas heads,depends on American cash.
Still,if Mr Abbas has indeed decided to climb down,it will be a precarious operation. After months of publicly saying he would stand firm,he would have little to show for changing his mind. Mr Netanyahu is hesitant about granting Palestinian requests for a formal term of reference acknowledging some of the most crucial issues,such as Jerusalem. Mr Abbas also wants Mr Mitchell to say that the city should be recognised as both states future capital. As if to rub salt in Palestinian wounds,Mr Netanyahu attended a tree-planting ceremony in a settlement when Mr Mitchell was still in town. By the by,the Israeli prime minister declared that any Palestinian state would have to be completely encircled by Israeli forces.
Mr Abbas,who has been notably flexible since taking on Yasser Arafats mantle since the old man died five years ago,has lousy cards to play. Mr Obamas administration,perhaps overconfident,persuaded him to agree that it would demand a complete settlement freeze as the price for restarting talks. But when it backed down,Mr Abbas was embarrassingly stranded.
In any event,he seems to lack a strategy. Doubters in his own party,Fatah,as well as his bitter rivals in Hamas,the Islamist Palestinian movement that runs Gaza,are sneering at his failure to make progress and are calling for his replacement; indeed,he has already said he would resign. For months weve done nothing, says a Fatah stalwart who has sometimes been touted as a successor. We have no elections,no reconciliation with Hamas,and no negotiations. Were looking ridiculous.
Should Mr Abbas dig in his heels for longer,some American intermediaries are looking at alternatives. They are airing a plan promoted by the Palestinian prime minister,Salam Fayyad,to get on with building a state that can then be presented for recognition by the UN Security Council in a couple of years. But few Palestinians would risk relying on the Security Council,where the Americans have a veto,to vote for such a state. Should the Americans and Europeans then balk,Mr Fayyad would look as silly as Mr Abbas.
A more radical suggestion,voiced by other Palestinians,is to dissolve the PA altogether and let Israel take responsibility for the occupation. But even the toughest Palestinian critics of Mr Abbas within the PA tend to be swayed by the personal benefits of the status quo. In any case,many Palestinians are enjoying the West Banks rising prosperity. Ramallah,their administrative capital,is bristling with new buildings,electronic and liquor shops and various spin-offs of foreign aid. Ramallah at night glitters with neon lights. Other Palestinian cities,though less flashy,also defy the worlds economic crunch.
Meanwhile,political apathy is setting in. A recent well-publicised meeting where Palestinians were to press their claims to Arab-populated East Jerusalem drew an audience of less than 50. As long as foreign donors pay the PAs salary bill,few expect a new intifada (uprising). A former Palestinian minister laments that Mr Netanyahu was right about economic development bringing peace,at least for a while.
For those Palestinians,particularly in the rural areas and refugee camps,who are less easily seduced by the lure of the café,the authorities still resort more readily to sticks than carrots. Under the guidance of an American general,Keith Dayton,hundreds of PA security forces have fanned out across Palestinian towns,co-ordinating with Israeli forces to swat Palestinian dissent. Though human-rights groups say the torture of dissidents has dipped,the number of arrests is sharply up.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi,a leading preacher of the Muslim Brotherhood,which is affiliated to Hamas,recently called for Mr Abbas to be stoned even in Mecca for seeking to delay a UN debate over the report by Richard Goldstone,a South African judge,on alleged abuses by Israels forces during Israels assault on Gaza a year ago. Mr Abbass PA responded by decking the West Bank in posters showing Mr Qaradawi hugging ultra-orthodox Jews at interfaith meetings,with the caption Qaradawi meets Israelis. Such is the apparent success of the PAs suppression of Hamas in the West Bank that the mocking posters,on walls habitually scarred with graffiti,remained unblemished. But that will not help Mr Abbas in his quest to relaunch meaningful negotiations with Israel.