Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan, July 26, 2010 Photo by Reuters
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to resume direct negotiations with Israel on September 2 in Washington without any of his preconditions being met. Israel has not promised to end construction in the settlements, and the Quartet's statement does not even mention this issue. Contrary to the demand that the Quartet's announcement would constitute the framework for the talks, U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell was quick to make it clear this is not the way things will be.

One of the leading analysts in the Palestinian media described how Abbas was forced to climb down from uncompromising stance with a term normally reserved to describe the defeat of the Arab armies during the Six-Day War. Abbas succumbed to Arab-American dictate, the analyst said, despite never having missed a chance to reiterate during the year that "there will be no direct negotiations without complete freeze of settlements."

So what made Abbas agree? The American president who encouraged him to climb on his high perch forced him down. When Abbas realized that Washington's approach had changed, and the Americans want him to enter direct negotiations, he searched for a face-saving option, like the Quartet's declaration.

Israel's steadfast refusal, however, to accept any preconditions in the direct negotiations and concerns at the White House of the impact of more pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu before Congressional elections in November, resulted in an announcement without teeth.

Another factor in Abbas' decision was the policy of the moderate Arab countries, in particular Egypt and Jordan. They backed him at first on the settlement freeze in return for direct talks. But when Abbas saw Netanyahu welcomed in Amman and Cairo, and the Arab League refusing to impose a ban on direct talks, the only option left for the Palestinian leader was direct confrontation with the U.S. administration. This he did not want.

The Palestinian Authority depends on foreign economic aid and the willingness of the U.S. to pressure countries to keep the money flowing. Abbas was concerned that the Americans would, at some point, stop economic aid.

In spite of opposition at home, Abbas knows that the bottom line is he could survive different opinions but not an end to economic aid.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said on Saturday that if Israel resumes settlement construction, the direct talks will stop. This will probably be the case, but at this stage, it would probably be wiser for senior PLO officials to cease climbing tall trees from which they are not sure how to climb down.