While the Palestinian Authority (PA) seems prone to agree to “indirect talks” with Israel without the latter undertaking any meaningful freeze of Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, the Israeli government is making only provocations, rendering the resumption – let alone success – of peace talks more unlikely, especially in the near future.
Israel lately undertook several measures that Palestinian officials insist reveal Israel’s determination to perpetuate its military occupation of Palestinian land and eliminate the possibility of establishing a viable Palestinian state. One of these measures is a decision by Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week to add two ancient mosques, the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem, to Israel’s so-called heritage list.
The two sites are located in the Palestinian heartland, which implies that Israel intends to annex the two shrines, a prospect vehemently rejected by Palestinians.
Prior to the Israeli decision, Western officials involved in efforts to revive the peace process indicated that the resumption of talks between Israel and the PA would occur in a few weeks. Tony Blair, the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East peace process, was quoted as saying that “substantial progress” had been made in US efforts to get the two sides to restart stalled talks.
PA leader Mahmoud Abbas who has been on an extensive tour in three continents to explain Palestinian grievances to his hosts, has spoken of the consolidation of a Palestinian culture of peace, telling the European Parliament that peace could only be achieved through negotiations, not violence. He seems to have toned down his earlier insistence that the resumption of peace talks with Israel take place only after Israel agrees to freeze settlement expansion.
The latest Israeli provocations, however, with regards to the seizure of the two mosques, seem to have poisoned whatever atmosphere of optimism or modicum of goodwill US Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell may have succeeded in fostering during his latest visit to the region. One Palestinian official intimated that Palestinian consent to resume stalled peace talks with Israel would be purely for show. “If we agreed to resume the talks under the present circumstances, we would be doing so solely to please and appease the Americans who apparently want to make an achievement of some sort, however shallow it may be.”
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Another official, Ghassan Khatib, who heads the Palestinian Government Press Office, voiced a similar view, saying that the resumption of talks with Israel would in no way mean that peace or justice were at hand. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from his office in Ramallah, Khatib said peace talks would be “pointless” if the two sides didn’t agree on three central points: a time ceiling to end the talks; the features and borders of the would-be Palestinian state; and the terms of reference – namely UN resolutions pertaining to the Palestinian issue, including the right of return guaranteed for Palestinian refugees uprooted when Israel was created more than 60 years ago.
Asked if he thought that indirect talks would be sufficient to resolve these defining issues, Khatib said that no amount of talks – direct or indirect – would be sufficient. “The problem lies not in holding more talks; the real problem has to do with Israel’s refusal to end the occupation.”
Khatib said the coming weeks and months would either witness more paralysis, which might precipitate violence, or a resumption of peace talks whose predictable failure would bring about the same. “My impression is that there can be no serious peace talks, let alone a peace agreement, with this rightwing [Israeli] government which, instead of facilitating the peace process, is actually poisoning the overall atmosphere by stealing more Palestinian land, seizing mosques and building more settlements.”
This pessimism is shared by most – if not all – PA and Fatah officials. Ahmed Qurei, a former Palestinian prime minister and parliament speaker, told reporters recently that, “the prospects for a peace agreement with Israel are very dim,” and that the “next five years will be very, very difficult.” He said Israel was “still unwilling to bring itself to recognise the Palestinian people’s right to freedom, independence and human dignity.”
While some Palestinian leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh, the Gaza-based prime minister, are already calling for a new uprising against Israel as means of exiting the untenable present stalemate, some PA officials are entertaining a French proposal, which still needs to be refined, that would recognise an undefined Palestinian state within 18 months.
“We welcome these European declarations, especially those of France, which we consider to have adopted a new attitude amidst the current political stalemate,” Nabil Shaath, a prominent PA spokesman, was quoted by the Maan News Agency as saying.
However, such a state without defined borders would, many Palestinians and their supporters contend, be a prescription for the liquidation of the Palestinian cause since it would enable Israel – perhaps under a rubric of land swapping – to consolidate its control of East Jerusalem and additional large chunks of the West Bank.
The PA has repeatedly said that it would never accept a state with temporary borders.
* Khalid Amayreh a journalist based in the Occupied Palestinian town of Dura. He obtained his MA in journalism from the University of Southern Illinois in 1983.