There is a prevailing feeling that the Palestinian cause is going through a period of tremendous confusion and loss of direction. The desperate internal division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; between the Ramallah Authority and the Gaza Authority, has for too long been tearing Palestinian coherence apart. The process that has come to be known as the final status talks is completely stagnant. Moreover, nobody knows for certain, from an Israeli and American perspective, what the final status that ought to be negotiated is.
The current Israeli government is not in a negotiating mood. On a number of occasions, the Prime Minister has announced that the establishment of a Palestinian state was not on his agenda for negotiation.
Worse still is the situation on the ground in Ramallah. In view of the PA's authoritarian and repressive behaviour toward all resistance factions and their armed elements, and the comprehensive control the US and other western states exert over the PA's security apparatus, it has become glaringly evident that the PA has fulfilled all requirements of the Road Map (2003). On its part, Israel has not fulfilled its obligations to the Road Map, above all with regard to the issue of a settlement halt. This, as we all know, has now become the stumbling block which makes resumption of negotiations a difficult task due the facts on the ground.
Land and the sovereignty over the land have always been at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, even prior to the elaboration of the various manifestations on the ground. And since the Palestinian Oslo negotiators headed by the then members of Fatah's Central Committee, Mahmud Abbas and Ahmad Qurai, did not insist that the issue of settlement be included in those ambiguous accords, Jewish settlements have continued to expand in the West Bank since the mid-nineties. Throughout the years that followed Oslo, Israeli settlements kept on expanding in an unprecedented manner.
The Palestinian approach to the final status settlement is based on the two-state solution. Nevertheless, West Bank settlement expansion has reached such a level that establishment of a viable Palestinian state has become a dream beyond reach. Perhaps this is why Mahmud Abbas has this time around insisted on a halt to settlement construction as a pre-condition to the resumption of talks which is, at the very least, a reaffirmation of a commitment to the Road Map. The Palestinian attitude was initially supported by the Obama administration which during its first months exhibited a clear commitment to push the negotiation process forward and bring about a settlement to the Middle East conflict. Obama appointed George Mitchell, an expert on the Palestinian issue, as special envoy to the region commissioned to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In no time at all, Mitchell emphasized the U.S commitment to the Palestinians' demand to implement a total settlement building freeze before they returned to the negotiating table.
However, neither the U.S administration nor the Arab system is in a position to put sufficient pressure on the Israeli government or rather they may have, for a long time, lost the resolute firmness of a power that is required to exert this kind of pressure on Israel. Obama's government is facing an on-going dilemma in Afghanistan while the situation in Iraq remains wide open to all possibilities. On Iran's nuclear dossier, there is no indication, at least as far as one can see that America and other Western countries are nearing a solution to the issue of its nuclear capabilities. Under the shadow of a prolonged economic crisis, the U.S administration is engaged in a fierce battle for passing Obama's health insurance reform program, the outcome of which will determine the overall success or failure of Obama's administration.
Under such circumstances and in view of the enormous suspicion that surrounded Obama's election to the presidency, it was not possible for Mitchell or his president to take the plunge into a decisive confrontation with Netanyahu and his government. The official Arab system is in no better position. On the one hand, it is evenly divided against itself and 'a house divided against itself cannot stand.' On the other hand, its key states are unable to assume their responsibility in fostering progress in the region. And Egypt which is supposed to play, more than any other Arab country, a major role in the Palestinian political arena has indeed been plunged into the atmosphere of power inheritance and refrained from adopting any policies that might affect American and regional support for the next president. Therefore, it is no surprise that Cairo agreed, after just one short meeting between President Mubarak and the U.S Secretary of State, with the new American approach to the resumption of peace talks; an approach which hailed Netanyahu's attitude of refusing to budge on the total settlement freeze.
Having pinned an enormous amount of hope on the Obama administration, President Abbas was now utterly frustrated and increasingly overwhelmed with pessimism and despondency. He had always betted on the negotiation process – since the early stages of his history as a nationalist, as well as on the possibility of reaching a definite settlement with regard to the conflict, albeit modest and not actually fulfilling Palestinian nationalist aspirations.
And today, the man who led the Palestinian negotiating team in Oslo and quarrelled with Arafat [his leader, president, friend and erstwhile companion for decades] to maintain the peace process; who declared a fierce war on all those among the nationalist and Islamic forces who did not share his opinions about highlighting the commitment of the self-governing authority to the peace process – this man has reached the end of the road.
For many years after the failure of the Camp David peace talks, the king had been standing naked before his people completely unaware of his nakedness and not at all bothered by it. Today, he is still standing naked before them but has however become aware of his nakedness. Perhaps this is the reason behind Abbas' announcement that he 'does not want another term' and that he will not seek re-election in the elections that he himself called. It is of course hard to take his announcement seriously. He is possibly posturing politically to exert pressure. Neither the history nor the language used by this man suggests that he is sincere about not taking part in the next elections. He was probably aware that such a decision would constitute pressure on the Americans and Israelis to make some concessions that would help him repair the serious political damage done to him in recent years and regain legitimacy among his own people. And that additionally it would put pressure on Arab allies, forcing them to abandon their indifference and negligence of Palestinian rights and themselves exert more pressure on the American ally.
This is not to say, however, that the situation would not deteriorate in a way that would push the Palestinian President to actually step down. In other words, his manoeuvring might turn into a serious and final decision.
What if Washington informs Abbas that it has done everything it can; that Netanyahu has refused to budge on the total settlement freeze, refused to make any concessions and maintained that the negotiations have absolutely nothing to do with the establishment of a Palestinian state but are rather only concerned with the enhancement of the self-rule government, and that Egypt, Riyadh and Amman announce that they feel utterly helpless! The logical and honest reaction will in this case definitely would be Abbas' immediate withdrawal. Not only from the presidency but from all other leading positions he currently assumes and to simply retire. But if he retracts his statement and runs for re-election in response, for instance, to a given pressure, and chooses to go back to the negotiating table, totally subservient to the present American-Israeli approach, he will return to office but as a president with no credit and who lacks the respect of the vast majority of his own people.
It is not about the norms of Arab politics during the last half century of which such a decision may remind us but is rather a question of the implications of the decision itself on the negotiating process and the future of the Palestinian national cause. Abbas should not run for president again as he cannot be a PA leader who is capable of resisting the occupation. He is not a militant man and does not believe in militancy. Therefore, he cannot return as president without returning to the negotiating table. His position and his role in Palestinian political life utterly and ultimately depend on the peace talks and the peace process, not only with regard to Israeli settlement expansion but also in view of Netanyahu's insistence that negotiations merely revolve around a slightly extended self-rule but not a Palestinian state.
This is what makes the heated controversy in the political arena about Abbas' announcement that he does not want to run for re-election void of all meaning. There has been a Palestinian controversy over whether Abbas is serious or is simply manoeuvring; whether there is an alternative candidate in sight; whether the Americans really are no longer concerned with the withdrawal of the most committed Palestinian figure to a peaceful settlement to the conflict and do not mind the assignment of Fayyad [being the man of the moment] to the position of president of the self-rule government. This approach sparks another controversy among Fatah circles and what has remained of the PLO's factions. That is, whether it is possible to accept the nomination of a president from outside Fatah and the PLO factions; whether Abbas' announcement of withdrawal from the elections would ultimately lead to an unspecified delay in the presidential and legislative elections which Abbas himself announced would be held on 24 January 2010, especially given that the national reconciliation and dialogue project ended once again in deadlock.
In fact, the controversy and its related issues are no longer relevant to the national cause. Similarly, the Egyptian document that has been the subject of a new and heated disagreement during the last few weeks is completely out of context. Although national reconciliation is an urgent necessity that nobody can deny, the document is merely a technical framework for the upcoming legislative elections. A formula for how to get the PLO back on the track of reconstruction and reform, and how the PA and its security apparatus can return to Gaza and other similar issues.
The Palestinian condition and the national cause do not require plunging into technicalities or falling into the trap of minute detail related to the PA presidency or the reconciliation project, but rather a good assessment of the situation which is capable of grasping the facts on the ground and understanding the balance of power; a new trajectory of political thinking that frees itself from the burden of the seventies mindset that has encumbered the national action strategy. The Palestinian condition requires a radical rethinking of the two-state chimera which has led the Palestinian national cause nowhere: no state on the ground and not even a self-rule government within the 1967 borders – lands occupied and swallowed by Israel which continues swallowing the land piece by piece while Palestinian nationalist leaders simply keep waiting.
The author is a Palestinian writer and researcher in modern history.
Translated by Monjia Abdallah Abidi
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.