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In an interview with Ari Shavit published Monday in Haaretz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reported there are signs negotiations with the Palestinians would start in the foreseeable future. According to Jordanian sources, the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, mediated by the United States, are scheduled to open on March 12 and continue for three months. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) announced on Sunday in Tripoli that he received answers to the 10 questions of clarification he presented to the Americans regarding the talks.

The answers have yet to be published, but the questions indicate the Palestinians' low expectations, mostly relating to the morning after the crisis. For example, if the indirect contacts reach a dead end, will the U.S. agree to convene the Quartet to assign blame for the failure to the responsible party? And in the absence of an agreement based on a final-status agreement, will Washington declare the basis to be the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem? Will the U.S. be ready to guarantee a freeze on construction in settlements in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem during the negotiations, even without an official announcement of a freeze by Israel?

Dr. Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's negotiations department, is not excited about the upcoming talks. Abu Mazen's senior political adviser says he has a hard time finding the difference between them and the 31 meetings his colleagues held with George Mitchell since his appointment in January 2009 as Obama's special envoy to the Middle East. To Erekat, Netanyahu's great happiness that the Palestinians are "backing down" is premature and exaggerated.

The cabinet's decision to renovate Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron illustrate what awaits, reminding veterans of the Oslo Accords of Netanyahu's directive in September 1996 to open the Western Wall Tunnel. Netanyahu's weakness for Jewish heritage and his lack of sensitivity to the neighbors' dignity cost dozens of Israeli and Palestinian casualties.

A comprehensive 21-page document written by Erekat indicates the Palestinians' expectations of Barack Obama. The document, recently distributed to European statesmen, reconstructs the stops made by the new administration. In his first meeting with Abu Mazen in the White House on May 28, 2009, Obama said the two sides must uphold their commitments in the road map. The president noted that Israel must immediately halt all construction in the settlements. Obama agreed that the negotiations should resume from the point where the ended in December 2008 (the Olmert-Abu Mazen talks).

Not asking anything

Erekat says that in all of his meetings with Mitchell, the envoy repeatedly told him "I am not asking anything of you. Just uphold your commitments. My efforts are focusing on the Israeli side. They must understand that they have to stop the construction in the settlements, including for natural growth, and resume the negotiations at the point where they stopped in December 2008." Mitchell added that the Arab countries meanwhile must begin the process of normalization with Israel to encourage it to implement the steps it is being asked to take. "Last August, Mitchell began speaking differently," continues Erekat. The envoy told them, he says, that "the U.S. is no longer asking for a thing from the Arab countries, and as for Israel, it seems we will not be able to obtain from it everything we wanted." On September 15, Mitchell met with Abu Mazen at the Muqata and told him of Netanyahu's agreeing to a temporary freeze on construction in the settlements. He said that "it was the best we could get" and declined to elaborate.

Erekat says the Palestinians heard the full details (the exemption from the freeze for East Jerusalem and public buildings in the West Bank and construction permits for 3,000 housing units in the settlements) from Israeli sources. As for the resumption of the negotiations, Erekat says Mitchell agreed with Netanyahu that the negotiations would resume without preconditions. The talks will touch on all the core issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, but (contrary to Obama's position in May 2009) will not resume from the point where it stopped in late 2008. In a bid to cover the reversal of the American position, Erekat says the administration notified him on September 30 and on October 20 of its willingness to present the Palestinians with accompanying letters noting that the U.S. recognizes the illegality of construction in the settlements and of the annexation of East Jerusalem. In another letter, the administration will agree to make every possible effort to have the negotiations completed within 24 months and after that, an independent Palestinian state will be established.

After the Americans made it clear that the letters have no legal significance, Abu Mazen announced he maintains his refusal to renew the negotiations, and Obama had to drop his plan to announce the renewal of negotiations at the end of his joint meeting in late September with Netanyahu and Abu Mazen. Erekat believes that developments in the Iranian portfolio, domestic problems and the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq played a key role in Obama's retreating from his original stance.

Nevertheless, Erekat in his document refuses to rule out the two-state solution. In the concluding section, he mentions the option of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but stressed to me this is the worst possible option. He assured me that he would do everything possible to avert a descent into that abyss.