RAMALLAH, August 1 (JMCC) – The legacy of the failed Camp David talks and the second intifada is a profound loss of hope.
“People who talk about peace are less welcomed now than they were before. It will be difficult to convince people,” says Omar Shahban, analyst and director of the Palestinian organization Palthink.
“The leader can sign a peace agreement tomorrow, but how can they sell it to the people?” he asks.
Ahmed Yousef, senior advisor to Gaza’s prime minister Ismail Hanieh, quotes Aaron David Miller, saying “For 30 years, Middle East peace was my religion. I am not a believer now.”
It is in this climate that Palestinians find themselves at a crossroads. President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to engage in direct talks with Israel as long as settlement construction goes on. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed a ten-month moratorium on construction in the occupied West Bank, it has been spottily enforced and fails to cover East Jerusalem.
But Abbas is under immense pressure from the international community to leave behind indirect talks carried out with the United States, and speak directly to Netanyahu. What he is demanding first hearkens back to the lessons learned at the Camp David talks, and since.
“It is useless to talk to the Israelis,” says an aide close to the president. “There were 289 meetings in Annapolis and it still failed. If you start with borders, at least you know where Netanyahu stands.”
“Abbas wants to see the map from the Israelis, to make sure that there is an outcome.”
The Palestinian president has said that he wants Israel to make gestures on the issues of borders (which includes settlements) and security before entering into direct negotiations. The Palestinian Authority wants Israel to allow its security forces to operate in areas of the West Bank currently limited to the Israeli military.
Further, US president Barack Obama has asked Israel to extend its settlement freeze past a September deadline. But to do so would anger the strong Likud right wing and Israel’s powerful settler lobby.
“All the coalition factions except Labor are against the settlement freeze,” says MK Ariel Dodd, head of the Land of Israel committee. “If he allows Obama to continue the freeze there will be no coalition and no government.”
Important bills will not pass into legislation and items on the budget agenda will be opposed, says Dodd. “He will bleed in parliament and eventually understand the government’s red line. He won’t survive.”
Israel’s settler movement remains as strong, if not stronger, than it was ten years ago. “The government is taking a left-wing stance by recognizing a Palestinian state,” declares Naftali Bennet, director of the Yesha Council that represents the settlers. “To pull out of the West Bank is to create a hornet’s nest of terror.”
Reflecting on the climate in Israel, Shaath says that the second Palestinian intifada is the Palestinian leadership’s greatest regret.
“We allowed violence to erupt into such a way that it brought hawks into the Israeli government and allowed them to reoccupy territory,” he says.
Now the Palestinian Authority finds itself asking to regain land it was already allotted under past accords.
And, of course, the second Palestinian intifada ushered in the rise of the Islamic movement Hamas and its challenge to the Palestinian Authority. Despite its 2006 elections victory in general elections, Hamas remains outside the political negotiations process.
”Until now, there is nothing. We have not heard serious intent from the Americans to open dialogue with Hamas,” says Yousef.
Both Hamas and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah are looking to the United States to recognize the mistakes of the past and place pressure on Israel to deliver.
“If Obama is willing to put the pressure on Netanyahu in the same way that Eisenhower put on Ben Gurion, if he really exerts pressure and is serious about returning to negotiations, then there will be a chance to [talk about peace],” says Shaath.
Without that kind of commitment, Shaath sees little hope in talks.
“To the Palestinians, a peace agreement is to be or not to be. For the Israelis it is a question of how much to give up,” says Shaath.