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Talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will restart this week under almost ideal circumstances for the Palestinians.

Dozens were hurt on both sides Friday in disturbances at Jerusalem's Temple Mount, clashes which soon spread into the Old City's Muslim Quarter and to several East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Rallies were also held against the West Bank separation fence in Bil'in and Na'alin. For a fleeting moment, it seemed as if the Al-Aqsa Mosque was again becoming a casus belli.

But as the hours passed, tempers cooled - in part due to Israeli police's policy of restraint, at least in Jerusalem. That no one was killed Friday on the Temple Mount allowed quiet to return to the Old City's streets by evening.

Holding talks on a final-status agreement while allowing a limited, grassroots mini-intifada to unfold earns the PA a crucial advantage in international opinion - which tends to view the clashes as a manifestation of Israeli, rather than Palestinian, provocation.

To the rest of the world, Friday's clashes appear to be spontaneous, nonviolent events in which most of the injured were Palestinian. As such, the PA returns to the role of David facing down Israel's Goliath, shedding the "terrorist" label with which it was tagged during the second intifada.

Ramallah is now waging an old-new policy: wielding an olive branch in one hand and in the other, a stone. Meanwhile, Israel continues to perpetuate its negative image abroad - designating the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb as national heritage sites, allowing Jews to settle in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, continuing settlement building, and tolerating the muscle-flexing of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

One of the first to respond to this series of events was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who exhorted the United States to stop Israeli adventurism lest it ignite a regional religious war.

Abbas' conduct underscores the unwillingness of the PA to distance itself from "grassroots" rallies that stir up fears of a third intifada - demonstrations to which Fatah and PA leaders give their full support.

And still, a few caveats.

First, such supposedly grassroots clashes are, for now, limited in scope. But if any Palestinians or Israelis are killed, they could quickly escalate into armed confrontations.

Second, though negotiations are getting underway, Israel refuses to grant the Palestinians' wishes and vice versa. The Netanyahu government will not accede to a full withdrawal from the West Bank or 1-to-1 territorial exchanges. The PA will not agree to less than these, particularly when core issues like Jerusalem and refugees are not even on the negotiating table.

Another failed round of talks is liable to end in a round of violence, one far more painful than that seen on Friday.

Read Amos Harel's analysis on U.S. VP Biden's upcoming visit

Posted by Avi Issacharoff on March 7, 2010

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