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Abbas faces harsh options

This week, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, went to Washington to meet with the US president, Barack Obama. He did so under heavy pressure, as US-brokered peace talks with Israelis reach their expiration date of April, with no deal in sight.

As Abbas landed in America, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank took to the streets to show support for their president. The organisers said that they were protesting against American and Israeli pressure on Abbas to extend peace talks with Israel, which have been ongoing for nine months. One activist told Al-Jazeera that the rallies were organized to "support the Palestinian leadership in its stance that abides by our national principles".

While the protests were supportive, with placards bearing Abbas's image, they demonstrate the double pressure on the Palestinian leader. If he signs up to a deal, or even agrees to extend negotiations, his people could see it as a capitulation. If he refuses altogether and walks away, he faces the ire of the international community, and the risk of being blamed for ending the peace process.

Negotiations are currently focused on agreeing a framework that would extend talks beyond the April deadline. There are three options open to Abbas: sign up to a framework for peace talks, refuse, or extend negotiations. All are fairly unpalatable.

First things first: what would the proposed framework look like? A written proposal has not been presented, but it is expected to endorse the Palestinian position that the borders of a future Palestinian state should be based on those agreed in 1967 (before Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem) – although land swaps would most likely allow Israel to keep some settlements. It would allow for a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, but with no specific mention of where. Israel would be permitted to retain a military presence on the Palestinian state's border with Jordan for some years.

Signing up to the deal would be politically unviable for Abbas, who has said there is "no way" he can accept some of the provisions. One of the demands made by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas has said that this is impossible because it would jeopardise the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees, and could put the rights of Israel's Arab minority at risk. "I am 79 years old and am not ready to end my life with treason," he said last week. This comment – supported by the public in Palestine – also shows that Abbas is thinking of his legacy. His political movement, Fatah, has urged him to say no to some or all of the anticipated provisions in the framework, as has the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Arab League foreign ministers.

Yet Abbas is stuck between a rock and a hard place, as he does not want to say no either for the time being. Abbas and Netanyahu are both keen to avoid the blame for derailing US peace efforts. A key part of Abbas's political strategy has been to promote and retain close ties with Washington, and appearing wilfully intransigent could undermine that work.

The final option – extending negotiations – carries its own set of risks. This week, Abbas's exiled rival, Mohammed Dahlan, who is seen as a potential successor to the Palestinian leadership, gave a long interview to Egyptian TV in which he suggested that Abbas would not stay true to his barnstorming rhetoric: "We all know you are going there [to Washington] only to extend the negotiations." This paints an extension as a capitulation, a view shared by some of the protesters in Palestine this week. Even agreeing to the talks in the first place was something of a concession from Abbas, who has previously refused to go to the negotiating table while Israel continued to expand settlements. Last year, the number of new settlement buildings more than doubled from the previous year. The fear among the Palestinian political establishment is that continued talks give Israel a smokescreen to hide behind, avoiding international criticism while ramping up settlement building.

It is perhaps for this reason that Abbas is said to favour an extension only if he gets a concession in return: a partial freeze on settlement building, or a pledge by Israel to release more Palestinian political prisoners. The last group of 104 political prisoners released by Israel after a previous agreement will be freed this month.

Of three bad options, the last seems like the least damaging for Abbas. Whether he will receive the concessions required to make an extension acceptable among his people remains to be seen in the coming days and weeks.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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