Monday, December 28, 2009

Why is Abbas stonewalling?

Hardly a day passes when Mahmoud Abbas does not reiterate his refusal to return to the negotiating table with Israel unless certain conditions are fulfilled. This has been Abbas's position since US President Barack Obama entered office earlier this year.

By setting conditions for resuming the peace talks, Abbas appears to have climbed a very high tree - one that he finds too difficult to climb down from.

Abbas and his top aides point the finger of blame at Obama. They point out that almost immediately after he entered the White House, he demanded from Israel a freeze of settlement construction.

In an interview published this week in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, Abbas explained that he could not afford a situation in which Obama appears more Palestinian than the Palestinians.

"Obama laid down the condition of halting the settlements completely," he noted. "What was I supposed to say to him? Should I say this is too much?"

Responding to criticism that he had never made such a demand before Obama was elected, Abbas said, "Halting the settlements is the second article of the road map and it's something I want. At the end they blame me, and they say that the condition of halting settlement construction was not on offer during the negotiations with former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Bear in mind that at every meeting with Olmert, the issue of the settlements was discussed."

ABBAS SEEMS to be more worried about his credibility than the construction in the settlements. In the past year, his standing among his constituents was severely undermined because of his policy of zigzagging.

First, Abbas told the Palestinians that he would never meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu unless he recognized the two-state solution and halted all settlement construction in the West Bank. However, under pressure from Obama,Abbas was forced to sit with Netanyahu at UN headquarters in New York.

Second, Abbas's failure to back a resolution endorsing the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead drew strong condemnations from many Palestinians, including some belonging to his Fatah faction. As the outcry in the PA territories and the Arab and Islamic countries intensified,Abbas rescinded his decision and decided to back the resolution that was brought before the UN Human Rights Council. But as far as his critics and enemies are concerned, it was too little and too late.

Third, Abbas's frequent threats to resign or not run in a new election are no longer taken seriously, not even by some of his top advisers. As one aide put it, "Abbas has threatened to resign at least 40 times in the past few months alone."

Abbas's empty threats and zigzagging have hurt his reputation so badly that now he's being forced to play tough with Israel and the US. To demonstrate this uncompromising approach, Abbas most recently came up with a new condition for resuming the talks: That Israel and the international community recognize beforehand the 1967 boundaries as the official and final borders of the future Palestinian state.

Abbas's aides in Ramallah say that he needs a "major concession" from Israel before he returns to the negotiations. "President Abbas does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past," explained one aide. "If he succumbs and resumes the talks with Israel unconditionally, our people will throw him out."

According to one of his advisers, Abbas has reached the conclusion that there's nothing to talk about with the Netanyahu government, especially when ministers like Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Ya'alon and Bennie Begin are among the prime minister's inner circle. To support his argument that there's no peace partner inIsrael, Abbas shows visitors a copy of an article written by journalist Gideon Levy in Haaretz, entitled: "Netanyahu should admit Israel doesn't want peace."

Abbas also appears to be very disappointed with the Obama administration, on which he was pinning high hopes in the beginning. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah was seriously hoping that Obama would forceIsrael not only to freeze settlement construction, but to pull back to the pre-1967 borders, including the entire eastern part of Jerusalem. But now Abbas and his officials are accusing Obama of "caving in to pressure from the Jewish lobby" by endorsing Netanyahu's stance. In this regard, the PA officials say, Obama has shown that his policy toward the Middle East is almost the same as that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Abbas is now hoping that the Europeans will counterbalance the US "bias" in favor of Israel by supporting the Palestinian leadership's demands. As one official put it, "The Americans can be on Israel's side, while the Europeans will be on our side. Let's turn it into a conflict between the Europeans and Americans."

It's hard to predict Abbas's next move as the man has been anything but consistent in his statements.

Yet the question that many Palestinians have been asking themselves is not whether the talks withIsrael would be resumed or not, but if there's anything left to negotiate about.

And a growing number of Palestinians have long been wondering whether the man who is often referred to as the "governor of the West Bank," and whose term in office expired about a year ago, really has a mandate to negotiate on their behalf.


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