"Those who are systematically sabotaging the start of direct negotiations, people on the Palestinian side and elements at home and abroad who are not enthusiastic" was a phrase Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used this week at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He gave no details and did not mention names. But he bound himself to an ultimatum when he announced that the construction freeze in the settlements will end as planned after 10 months have elapsed, "and not a day later."
The 10th month is approaching and the Palestinians are still not prepared to enter direct negotiations with Israel, despite the pressure on the Palestinian Authority's leadership by U.S. President Barack Obama and the European Union, and the ticking clock in Israel. What have they gained by wasting the freeze's 10 months? Are they waiting for terrorist attacks to resume? Are they just trying to play for time, or is it the inability of PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen ) to wade into the cold waters of peace, as Moshe Dayan was fond of saying?
The settlement-freeze conditions set by the PA are reminiscent of the time Israel conditioned negotiations with the Palestinians on "stopping terror first." They did this on the assumption that it wouldn't happen anyway. With time, the terror stopped but peace didn't break out.
Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the PA's Preventive Security Force and currently an aide to Abu Mazen, was a guest this week of the Council for Peace and Security; he took part in a discussion on what is and is not happening between the two peoples. He spoke fluent Hebrew, and one of the participants praised him for his command of the language. His answer: "I don't wish on you studies in the university where I learned Hebrew." (He spent 17 years in our prisons. )
Gen. (res. ) Mendy Meron asked him: "Why are you delaying entry into direct negotiations with us? Another settlement house, another 100 homes - what significance will they have when land swaps are negotiated as part of a comprehensive settlement?" Rajoub evaded the question and didn't even answer indirectly. He reiterated that he is for direct talks, but he had no convincing explanation for why the PA has failed to exploit the construction freeze to conduct direct negotiations. When the freeze ends, the same question will remain: What difference will one house more or less make when the question of land swaps is on the table?
Some of the people at the discussion got the impression that there is an internal Palestinian opposition, or that the PA doesn't believe that the Netanyahu government is ready to reach an agreement when the international climate favors the Palestinians. Could it be that Hamas, in control of Gaza, is pressing the PA not to start direct negotiations? Rajoub's answer: Gaza belongs to the Palestinians. That's our problem, and we'll have to deal with it internally. At the same time, he advises us not to start negotiating the refugee issue. Leave it for the end, he says, it's an international issue.
The question why it wasn't possible to hold direct negotiations during the freeze probably occurred to more than one participant in the meeting with Rajoub. Doesn't the PA leadership understand that the extreme right in Israel is only too happy to hear and repeat the slogan that there is no one to talk to, and to use it as a weapon against extending the freeze? Since any future agreement will require changes to the 1967 lines, what was the point of Abu Mazen's ultimatum in The Irish Times this week? In that interview, he said that despite international pressure he does not intend to enter direct talks before Netanyahu agrees in advance to accept the principle of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 lines.
Maybe Abu Mazen is putting off direct negotiations because he doesn't really trust Netanyahu. He also wants to wait and see if Obama has the power to press Netanyahu to commit to concessions even before the end of the freeze - a kind of deluxe negotiation in which the U.S. administration provides the Palestinians with answers to all their demands on a silver platter.
The way things look now, it doesn't seem like Bibi can extend the freeze even as a "confidence-building measure" without a revolt by the extreme right and part of Likud. And maybe that's what the Palestinians expect - that the U.S. administration and the European Union will join forces to impose an agreement on Israel.
But given what is happening in the world, especially in our region, because of the Iranian threat, it's doubtful Obama will come out against Israel as the PA leadership hopes.
It will be pathetic if the Palestinians, who have not missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, don't learn the lesson and miss again.
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