Breakthrough or more of the same?

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Ever since the announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he will not run in the next Palestinian presidential elections, political circles in Palestine have been witnessing a sort of paralysis.

Gone are the daily meetings in Ramallah’s muqatta with foreign leaders, and gone are the almost daily statements by US, Israeli and Palestinian officials. Naturally, with the presidency in deep freeze, the Palestinian issue has been dropped from the headlines. Except for a brief moment when a prisoner exchange appeared to be happening, Palestine has become a nonstory.

Whenever such silence occurs, one can ponder things deeper. This means that lack of news is a reflection of lack of progress. Some, however, feel that such slow news days and weeks are perhaps a blessing in disguise. If Palestine and Israel are no longer in the public light, maybe more serious behind-the-scenes negotiations can take place without the emotional roller coaster that usually accompanies high profile negotiations, or pre-negotiations.

The latter opinion is what some might glean from the statements made by the Quartet envoy in the Middle East, Tony Blair. Speaking on CNN, Blair recalled some of the darker days in the Irish negotiations and reflected that while most people were down and pessimistic, some real progress was happening behind the scenes.

If the history of the Middle East is of help, then it is crystal clear that progress in the past always took place behind closed doors, with agreements which often caught the majority of the public, and even many political hacks, off guard.

Starting with the Egyptian discussions that led to the surprise visit by Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem through with the secret deal cobbled together in Oslo, some of the major agreements in the region were arrived at in secret, without the direct influence of the United States.

It is not clear whether the right-wing Netanyahu government has what it takes for some bold decisions that have eluded Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu’s right-wing credentials and his known passion to etch his name in history are certainly helpful for such a breakthrough. The same way that right-wing Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt and Republican Richard Nixon reached the breakthrough with China, many believe that only people from the right can take historic decisions for peace.

On the other hand, the Palestinian side is also ripe for a breakthrough worked out behind the scenes. Abbas has shown that he has no tolerance for the day-to-day public attention that a slow-moving public peace process takes. His announcement that he will not run for president has been repeated more than once, although always with the caveat that he is not opposed to spending the next months working out an agreement in a caretaker capacity.

To be fair, Abbas has always said that whatever agreement is reached with the Israelis, it will have to be presented for a referendum to the Palestinian people.

The silence of the past few weeks has also been noticeable in Washington. While US President Barack Obama came out of the inauguration with highly visible decisions, he seems to have become dead silent as far as the Middle East conflict is concerned. It is possible that he is silent because he tries to absorb and correct some of the mistakes committed in the past months. The hesitation on the settlement issue, on Jerusalem and the Goldstone report does not bode well for an African American president with a Muslim father who was hailed as the prophet of hope and change of US foreign policy. Add to that the fact that Obama will soon have to go to speak about peace upon receiving a Nobel Prize that he himself felt he is not deserving.

The next few weeks or months will show whether this time of relative political quiet will be invested well or whether we will go back to the same old positions, while the 42 years of occupation continue unabated.

If solving the Palestinian conflict is in the national interest of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans, as Obama has said, it is only normal for people to expect the leaders to work something out that can bring about a true breakthrough.

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