By Abdel Bari Atwan
President Mahmoud Abbas has stressed, in all his press interviews, that he will not go into direct negotiations with the Israelis unless there is tangible progress in the "proximity" talks, sponsored by US Senator George Mitchell, the US peace envoy. According to the Palestinians' Chief Negotiator, Dr. Saeb Erekat, the indirect negotiations have not achieved anything to-date; the Israelis, he claims, have refused to respond to the proposals submitted by the Palestinian Authority through the mediator regarding agreements reached with Israel's ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the borders of an independent Palestinian state.
This is all well and good, but how can President Abbas, his Chief Negotiator and all other spokespeople for the PA explain the meeting that took place on Sunday in Jerusalem between Dr. Salam Fayyad, the PA's Prime Minister, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister? Does this meeting not count as "direct negotiations", the likes of which are rejected openly by both sides but which are in reality clearly being held?
When Israeli sources revealed details of the meeting the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah at first hesitated and then confirmed it. The justification is that that the meeting has nothing to do with the negotiations and the agenda was limited to everyday matters facing Palestinians in the West Bank. The PA emphasized that Dr. Fayyad is prohibited from speaking on political affairs, which is the prerogative of Fatah.
Dr. Fayyad has plainly challenged the Authority about this. At a press conference in his office in Ramallah after the meeting, he revealed that he had discussed several issues with Barack, including security coordination, the need to stop settlement activities and stop deportations of Palestinians, the release of prisoners and the lifting of Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip. He stressed that they had discussed all of these issues "in depth".
The seriousness of this matter is not confined to its the violation of the Arab agreement not to move to direct negotiations without significant progress on the key issues; its timing was also hugely significant, coming one day before the long-anticipated meeting in the White House between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Netanyahu can now argue in the White House that the US does need not to exercise any pressure on him to freeze settlement activities in order for a resumption of the peace process and that he does not have any problem with the Palestinian side. He can reassure the Americans that negotiations are continuing; only yesterday, he will say, my Minister of Defence met face to face with the Palestinian Prime Minister and discussed all the serious issues, including the settlements and the siege on Gaza.
This kind of degrading and short-sighted retreat by the PA is neither new nor surprising; we are now used to seeing a PA volte-face like this but we no longer trust any statement coming from President Abbas and his aides, because we know they will collapse like a pack of cards in the face of US pressure or Israeli circumvention, or both.
The Palestinian Authority, its President and its Prime Minister have always provided a lifeline to the Israelis when they face international isolation. They did exactly that in the Annapolis conference when they took part without a settlement freeze, and repeated the trick after the aggression on Gaza when they accepted the indirect negotiations. They have committed the sin of negotiating directly with the Israelis at a time when the blood of the martyrs killed by Israel on the Freedom Flotilla has hardly dried and Turkey threatens to cut ties with the Jewish state if it does not apologize formally for the attack on the convoy and meet all other conditions, namely agreeing to an International Commission of Inquiry and lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip.
One PA official told me that we "on the outside" do not know the extent of the suffering of Palestinians living under occupation, and we have to understand that it is an authority restricted by the occupation. The Barak-Fayyad meeting is to facilitate people's lives, he argued, and to move forward in developing the economy and the completion of the "state" infrastructure; Barak is, he claimed, responsible for all of these issues. Really, the Minister of Defence responsible for all of these other non-defence issues?
To that official I say this: we understand all that and more, and we support efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians, but… would it not have been prudent to delay the meeting until after Netanyahu's return from Washington? Couldn't the people of the West Bank exercise more patience for an extra few days after the suffering they have endured under decades of occupation?
The issue is not about easing the pressure of living for the people in the occupied territories, but about easing the political pressure on Netanyahu and ending his current international isolation. There is nobody better than the Palestinian Authority and the men in Ramallah to do that job to the best of the Israeli PM's satisfaction.
Netanyahu will most likely pledge to Obama that he will release some Palestinian prisoners (probably and mainly from amongst those whose sentences are almost finished in any case), remove some checkpoints in the West Bank and transfer some of the occupied areas from region "B" to region "A" under Palestinian control. He will then demand direct negotiations and unleash settlement building again.
Israel lives its better days in the West Bank, building settlements, converting Jewish sanctuaries, emptying Jerusalem of its Arab population, and all the while enjoying security coordination with the Palestinian Authority whose land it is usurping. The PA has provided stability and security for the Israeli occupation, so why make concessions to the Palestinians or give them the State they deserve or any kind of sovereignty?
It pains us to see the Palestinian national movement moving from resistance and the goal of liberation, to settling for the goal of "security" and salaries and a satisfactory living for the people of the West Bank. It is no exaggeration to say that the officials of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), particularly those working in the Gaza Strip, are more sympathetic to the national tragedy of Palestine and the siege on the Palestinian people than a large proportion of their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. To understand what I mean, look at the noble positions taken by the recently retired Commissioner-General of the UNRWA, Ms. Karen Abu Zeid, and the Director of Operations in Gaza, John Ging and their fierce opposition to the blockade and the Israeli assault on Gaza, then compare them to the positions taken by officials of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
The PA appears to be fond of the Egyptian model of government, as all indications point to it turning into an authority with a deepening alliance between officials and the business class, because all the Authority cares about now is the economy, the business sector, facilitating the movement of capital and attracting investments to increase the wealth of those already rich. But the destitute refugees and the desperately poor ordinary Palestinians have only the crumbs at best.
Mr. Zakaria Zubaidi, an honourable struggler against the occupation who has spent more time in Israeli cells than he has lived in his home in Jenin, summed up the current tragic situation in the West Bank when told Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, "Yes, there are hospitals and more students in schools and also SUVs for PA officials and salaries at the end of the month, but the Palestinian people did not sacrifice thousands of martyrs and tens of thousands of wounded and prisoners for these things."
It is to be hoped that the Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah read his words and take them to heart.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.