Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York in September 2009. Photo by Reuters
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Officials in Jerusalem believe that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will attempt to delay at all cost the beginning of direct peace negotiations with Israel, even after the Arab League gave the green light for the process at a special session on Thursday.

A senior source in Jerusalem said that Abbas will likely wait until September, when Israel's temporary settlement freeze expires, before declaring his own decision on the matter.

Officials also assume that the Palestinian president will use the time to try to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue the free or to take other "equal" measures to that regard.

The Arab League approved the holding of direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, but authorized Qatari Prime Minister Hamed Ben Jasem al-Thani, who heads the committee, was somewhat vague about its conclusions at the press conference that followed the meeting in Cairo.

"There is agreement, but only about the way the talks will be held and the subjects that will be discussed," he said. He added that Abbas was authorized to decide when the time is right for resuming the direct negotiations.

In addition, Al-Thani said, the Arab League is demanding clearer guarantees from the Americans than they have yet offered about the framework of the direct talks.

About an hour prior to the Arab League's official announcement, Abbas addressed the gathering of the Arab states' representatives and asked them to back the continuation of proximity talks for the full four months that had originally been allotted for them. That was tantamount to asking the Arab League not to decide until September - when the settlement freeze put in place by Israel's government is due to end.

Abbas said he is under heavy pressure - "never in my life have I experienced such pressure" - to agree to direct talks. And he may well have expected full support from the Arab states in resisting this pressure, as they have supported him steadfastly throughout the last few months.

But the events of the past week could have given Abbas a clue as to what was coming: Jordan's King Abdullah met publicly with Netanyahu for the first time in over a year, and a meeting between President Shimon Peres and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was scheduled for Sunday.

The planned Peres-Mubarak meeting follows an announcement by Mubarak's spokesman on Wednesday about the receipt of American guarantees that could make it possible to resume direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

All this suggests that, with all due respect to the PA's wishes, the Arab League's major player are not looking for a confrontation with the administration in Washington. On the contrary: They are falling in line behind U.S. President Barack Obama like obedient soldiers with regard to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

According to the Qatari prime minister, the Arab League unequivocally opposed direct negotiations in the past, but has changed its view in light of what he termed the current "Arab situation."

"So long as Netanyahu is there, neither direct nor indirect talks will produce results," he said. "But we want to prove to the world that we are in favor of peace, without giving up on our rights."

It seems the main reason for the change in the Arab League's stance is what al-Thani had to say next: The league is convinced that Israel does not seriously intend to make peace, and is merely trying to buy time, "but we are convinced that U.S. President Barack Obama is serious in his intention to make peace."

This may be one of the most impressive achievements any American president has ever had in the Middle East: He pressured Arab states to back direct negotiations, and they did so, even at the cost of a minor confrontation with the Palestinians. Winning some brownie points at the White House was apparently enough to get the Arabs to withdraw their unconditional support for Abbas.

State Department officials were pleased by the Arab League's decision, saying it will spur direct talks. A department spokesman termed the news from Cairo encouraging, adding that the Qatari prime minister had sent a letter to Obama on behalf of the committee on the Arab peace initiative.

Ultimately, the spokesman stressed, the parties themselves will have to decide whether there is a basis for moving on to direct negotiations. But as far as the United States is concerned, he added, this is the right time.

Responding to a question on preconditions for negotiations and how they may affect the start of the talks, the spokesman said there was still work to be done ahead of direct talks, but the U.S. was in touch with all the parties involved.