The announcement by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on August 20 that the US is to host direct talks between Palestinian president Mahmood Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu has singularly failed to raise hopes of progress toward any level of justice for the suffering people of Palestine.
The announcement by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on August 20 that the US is to host direct talks between Palestinian president Mahmood Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu has singularly failed to raise hopes of progress toward any level of justice for the suffering people of Palestine. Indeed, the only reason most Palestinians have not reacted more angrily to the announcement is that they have long since given up expecting anything from the process as a whole or from any of the parties involved, particularly their own supposed leader and representatives.
The talks, which are due to begin in Washington on September 2, with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan also taking part, follow months of shuttle diplomacy between Tel Aviv and Ramallah by George Mitchell, US special envoy on the issue, which began in May. The problem is that there is little sign of anything substantive having emerged from those “proximity talks”. When Mitchell was asked what progress had been made to justify the resumption of direct negotiations after a break of more than 18 months, he could offer only vague references to a commitment from both sides to a two-state solution, which is hardly new.
The reality is, as most observers have recognised, that the timing of Clinton’s announcement owes more to Barack Obama’s domestic political imperatives than anything else. With mid-term elections coming up in November, Obama badly needs to show some sort of progress in some area to try to restore his flagging poll ratings. And under intense pressure from the right in American politics, not least for his failure to sufficiently condemn the building of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York, Obama must know that the only way these talks can help him domestically is if he avoids anything that can be interpreted as criticising Israel or sympathising with the Palestinians; which bodes ill for Abbas.
For Netanyahu, the announcement comes as very good news, and at a very good time, which is not surprising. Knowing Obama’s domestic situation, and with the power of the Zionist lobby in the US behind him, one can assume that Netanyahu has exacted a high price from the Americans for giving Obama the political boost he needs. The full details of this price will only become apparent as the talks progress and we see what further concessions Obama makes to Israel.
Even before the talks begin however, Netanyahu is a beneficiary for two reasons. The first is that the announcement of the talks without Israel having to make any concessions whatsoever is confirmation that it will not have to pay any political price for its increasingly aggressive and criminal behaviour, from the murderous assault on Gaza in 2008–2009 to the killing of nine Turkish humanitarian activists in its attack on an aid ship in international waters in May. The election of Obama was supposed to be bad news for Israel, and its subsequent behaviour has roused world public opinion against it to unprecedented levels, leading some to hope that Israel might finally be held accountable for its crimes. As usual, the expectations of those who were less optimistic are the ones being realised.
The second reason that the announcement is good for Israel is the timing. Israel’s 10-month partial freeze on the building of new settlements in the West Bank (which never applied to the Jerusalem area) ends on September 26. Abbas had initially made a total halt to all settlement activity a precondition to direct talks. This condition has already been set aside, presumably under US pressure to get talks started in time for Obama to claim a political success before the mid-terms. Now Abbas, under pressure from Palestinians to show some sort of backbone, has threatened to pull out of the scheduled talks if Israel renews settlement building.
This is a win-win-win situation for Netanyahu. He can either extend the freeze for a few months — no big deal as it is so limited in any case — and so portray himself as being the one willing to make concessions in order to enable the talks to go ahead, and no doubt extracting a further price from Obama for his magnanimity. Or he can provoke Abbas into being the one who pulls out of the talks, thus again — as so often in the past — placing the blame for the lack of progress on the Palestinians. Or he can take a middle road, simply standing his ground, allowing the freeze to end without being deliberately provocative, and leave Abbas — under pressure from the US and his supposed allies Mubarak and Abdullah — to further humiliate himself by abandoning his threat to cancel the talks and coming to Washington with his tail between his legs and the anger and contempt of the Palestinians ringing in his ears.
Having discussed the US and Israeli angles on the talks, it hardly seems necessary to consider Abbas’s. The Pales-tinian president is a man with no standing, no credibility and no leverage. Events since Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections in 2006 have confirmed Abbas as a creature of the US and Israel, who is now serving time until his masters replace him with someone else, probably Salam Fayad, the pro-western former IMF functionary who is now prime minister in Ramallah. Fayad is currently believed to be preparing the ground for a “unilaterial declaration of Palestinian statehood” which would give the Israelis precisely the sort of Palestinian state they want — a subservient Bantustan — without having to make any concessions in the process.
As usual, the most representative, coherent and accurate Palestinian res-ponse to the situation has come from Hamas. Speaking at an iftar event for journalists in Damascus on August 25, Khalid Mash‘al gave an incisive analysis of events, saying that the PLO Executive Committee’s decision to endorse the talks was “an echo of Washington’s orders,” and that “the success of talks will be according to Israeli measures and conditions, which means eliminating the Palestinian cause, including the right of return, Jerusalem, 1967 borders. This is a success for Israeli interests.” (Ma’an News Agency, 8-25-2010.)
However, Hamas’s isolation in Gaza, and Abbas’s acceptance of the US veto over any reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, have effectively excluded Hamas from any influence in the international politics of the region, which is no doubt precisely what the US and Israel intended. Thanks to the repression of Hamas in the West Bank, in accordance to US and Israeli demands and at the hands of Palestinian security agencies directly answerable to US and Israeli officials, general Palestinian agreement with Mash‘al’s analysis of development is unlikely to be translated into effective political action anytime soon.
Meanwhile all Palestinians can do is watch from the sidelines as their supposed leaders and representatives sell them down the river yet again.