Back to Negotiations…Again

It’s final. On March 7, the PLO gave its support to the resumption of a four-month return to indirect negotiations with Israel. What’s surprising is not that the Palestinian leadership finally capitulated to the pressure, especially from the United States, but that they were able to hold out for so long.

It has been a year since President Mahmoud Abbas declared he would not return to negotiations with an Israeli government under its new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until there was a complete halt to Israel’s illegal settlement construction. In all fairness, Abbas really held his ground on this point, taking criticism from some in the international community and even a few of his own people. The United States, which according to one of its foreign representatives, "may have set the bar too high" with is initial call for Israel to freeze all settlement activity as a prerequisite for returning to negotiations, later reneged slightly on its stance after Israel declared its so-called 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. The pressure was then back on Abbas to reconsider his position and recognize that Israel had at least taken a step in the right direction.

President Abbas and the Palestinians at large were all aware of the farcical nature of the aforementioned moratorium. East Jerusalem was not included as part of the deal, neither were constructions already underway, nor the building of public places such as synagogues, kindergartens or hospitals. This, no doubt, left a lot of wiggle room for Israel to continue building within and expanding already existing settlements all while escalating construction in and around Jerusalem.

Still, in a face saving move, Abbas threw the ball into the Arab Leagues’ court, declaring that if the Arabs okayed indirect negotiations, so would he.

Unfortunately, the Palestinians do not have much to look forward to if the past and the present are any indication of what the future holds. In terms of settlements, Israel is a far cry from freezing construction in them. A day after the PLO announced its decision to return to talks, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the construction of 112 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit. Clearly a provocation aimed at showing the Palestinians and even the Americans who’s boss, Israel maintains its attitude that ultimately, it holds all the cards.

They may be right. Negotiations are a household term in Palestine given the 18 years of engagement in them. The Madrid Conference of 1991 from which negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were officially launched, seems light years away. The Oslo Accords were not far behind in 1993 and everyone, even the most skeptical of Palestinians squinted desperately to see a ray of hope and a glimmer of light at the end of such a dark tunnel. Since this was their first shot at negotiating directly with the enemy and since their earlier tactics had not brought them to the goal of liberation, the Palestinians were willing to "give peace a chance" so to speak.

Eighteen years later, we are no closer to liberation than we were then. If anything, the situation on the ground is far worse. To add insult to injury, the Israeli government now on the opposite side of the table is a right-winged government under none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. Yes, the Israeli premier says he does support a Palestinian state. The question is what kind of state does he envision? Surely not a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian state along 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital. No, this is a far cry from the pathetic entity Netanyahu has dreamed up for us –” a demilitarized state, huge chunks of land on which the major settlement blocs lie and which are annexed to Israel, and a Jerusalem that is off-limits to Palestinians. Not a very appealing offer, most would confer, so what exactly do the Palestinians think they will gain from returning to the negotiating table with the US passing messages to and from the two parties?

At this point in time, it is highly unlikely that even the most optimistic Palestinian would think negotiations with the Netanyahu government can lead to anything good. However, in defense of the leadership’s position, perhaps President Abbas and the others who gave him their vote, along with the United States, are looking for more short-term goals, or put bluntly, damage control. That is to say, if Israel is actively engaged in negotiations, at least it would be obligated to answer to the United States. Entering negotiations with a declared goal of reaching peace means all actions of each party would assumedly be towards a common goal of conciliation rather than antagonism. Of course, this is hardly a sure thing when it comes to Israel but if the Palestinians can at least stop some of the most damaging measures on the ground like home demolitions and evictions in Jerusalem especially, than that would be a tiny step in the right direction.

There is of course, the United States to consider as well. From the go-get, President Obama has been determined to make a difference here even though he has, by his own admission, fallen short of this goal. There is still time though, and perhaps the US has been so eager to get the parties back on track for its own purposes, again to save face. In all cases, this could work to our benefit, especially if the US is willing to push Israel on key issues such as borders and settlements.

Still, there is not much to be overly optimistic about. It is Benjamin Netanyahu we are dealing with, which is anything but encouraging. In the end, it’s pretty safe to say that baby steps are all we can hope for.