It's here. It appears as though it is just days away from happening. After countless delays, the proximity talks are set to begin. Let the celebrations begin. So what if Obama's only achievement is getting Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate through a mediator after both sides have already gone through 16 years of direct talks? Still, after an awkward scuffle between the U.S. administration and Israel, the Palestinian Authority has agreed to resume peace talks. Now all that's left to resolve are some minor issues like Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders and, of course, the one issue everyone loves to avoid – Hamas' control of Gaza. (I'm not even mentioning minor issues such as Iran's nuclear bomb, Hezbollah's rapid armament, Syria's growing influence in Lebanon and the tightening of its ties with Tehran and Hezbollah.)
The biggest mystery, as far as I can tell, remains the question of which assurances Israel gave Washington in order to ease the tensions created in the wake of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit, the same ones that brought about the Palestinians' return to the indirect negotiations table. The PA doesn't outright say anything but hints at the guarantees Washington presented on settlement construction. The U.S. and Israel are also keeping silent. One can only hope that Obama's administration received a substantial return for almost two months of delayed talks, humiliating Israel's prime minister and an all around relationship crisis. Top PA officials have used every opportunity to hint that those assurances include a complete freeze of settlement construction, including East Jerusalem, something which their Israeli counterparts vehemently deny. It's possible that the versions that appeared in the Palestinian press are the more accurate ones: Israel committed itself to end provocations as long as indirect talks are taking place. But, what does that mean?
It could be that by "provocations" they mean the approval of any ostentatious East Jerusalem building plans, or allowing Jewish building in Arab neighborhoods as well as, of course, no West Bank building. But what about, for example, Jerusalem neighborhood such as Gilo? Or Ramat Eshkol? Or even Pisgat Ze'ev and the French Hill, which house many Arab residents? Will construction be frozen there as well? Although it is true that those areas are Israeli neighborhood situated beyond the Green Line, both are expected to stay under Israeli authority in any future peace deal.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has been saying in recent days that the construction of even one apartment in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood or, conversely, demolitions of East Jerusalem Arab homes, would severely strain the indirect talks. That statement sounds like an alibi for another negotiations blowout the PA could pin on Israel (particularly the demolitions clause, as there's no intention to build in Ramat Shlomo for at least another two years). Moreover, it raises the suspicion that that Palestinians are not as interested in advancing a peace deal as they are in weighing the ways to hurt Netanyahu's standing. Thing is, the U.S. appears more interested in "how can we get rid of Netanyahu" than on the success of any upcoming round of talks. Otherwise, they would have sat the quarreling kids around the table to settle a peace deal a long time ago.
The death of the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood
While Henry Kissinger spoke of Israel when he said it had no foreign policy, "only a domestic policy," the PA is doing everything in its power to follow that same principle. Following the developments in the internal Palestinian arena can be fascinating, and that's even when you exclude the Fatah-Hamas rivalry. The real grudge these days is between PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Fatah. The veteran organization has had it with Fayyad stealing the stage and with his sole handling of the billions of dollars coming in from donating states. All can Fatah do is sit and watch as public opinion sways slowly but surely toward Fayyad in a way which predicts that he would become the leading presidential candidate in a few years time, at the expense of any potential Fatah contender. So now it is doing anything it can to trip up Fayyad.
Fatah's Revolutionary Council unanimously called PA President Mahmoud Abbas last week to remove Fayyad from the Finance Ministry. The group that once saw Fayyad as the next great hope for Palestinian politics is starting to voice its discontent. Abbas sees that, but he, like Netanyahu, also has political considerations to make. He will have to make some kind of change in Fayyad's cabinet. Maybe it wont be finance, but Fatah will definitely want to see a major portfolios, such as education or foreign affairs, pass into its hands. In the meantime, Fayyad is trying to calm matters. Not one of Abbas' aides or any top Fatah official expected Fayyad's comment last month, stating the PA's intent on unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state in August 2011. It was a clear contradiction of the political line presented by Abbas and those close to him, who made it clear they did not support a unilateral declaration. Fayyad apparently got the hint on Sunday, when he clarified that he did not mean statehood would be declared by 2011 but that he wanted national institutions to be completed by that time. That, however, did not appease Fatah. So, as far as this political war is concerned, there's no need to worry. Expect more to come.
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