Everyone I’ve spoken to in Ramallah this weekend has sounded a bit tired, if not burnt out. Even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of renewed direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis didn’t do much to remedy the weariness. We thought that the fatigue and the burnout were results of the Ramadan fast and the scorching heat, but the evening came, and proved us wrong. The exhaustion that prevailed even after the fast was broken can be attributed to bitterness, and skepticism as well.
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The Palestinians should be delighted and cheerful. Logic dictates that negotiations mean the chance to realize the Palestinian dream, ending the occupation and founding an independent state next to Israel, perhaps even ending the refugee problem, returning the prisoners, and ending the conflict entirely. But the mood in Ramallah is far from cheerful.
The Palestinians have been through hell since the Madrid Conference. Sometimes a deal seems just around the corner, and sometimes it seems miles and miles away. Regardless, the dream remains, but realizing that dream has been full of question marks.
A Palestinian acquaintance, uninvolved in politics, that I met on one of Ramallah’s hilltops, told me how Palestinians feel during the journey from Hebron to Jenin. “It’s not the soldiers or the checkpoints, or even the fence – those are concrete symbols of the occupation that can be removed at once. It will take a month or two, or even a year, but the real problem is posed by the settlements on each and every hill. New outposts, new foundations, new settlements are shredding our dream into bits, and so when Abu Mazen asks about a border, he knows why… he’s asking the world what borders they are willing to allow us.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiating team have been under enormous pressure during this past weekend, not only from Kerry and the Arab League ministers – who are dealing with other issues, and want this conflict off of their plates already – but also from the Palestinian street and public opinion. Another round of fruitless talks, and Abbas and his team’s chances of political survival drop down to zero. That sentiment was expressed during PLO and Fatah central committee meetings, as both were characterized by fierce arguments, and a majority of representatives against holding talks without clear boundaries.
And so the Palestinians are reluctant to talk about negotiations. “There are still issues that must be resolved,” Dr. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, told his associates.
Erekat will travel to Washington next week to meet Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, for what is supposed to be direct negotiations, and so Kerry’s wish will be granted. But the talks will take the form of an argument more than anything else, an argument over the foundations of the negotiations themselves, regarding how to start, how to finish, and equally important, when to finish. Erekat will also have to gauge just how much authority Livni actually has, how flexible she can be, and what decisions she can make. Will she present a map? Set borders? Or will time be wasted on technicalities and vague wording?
By the time Eid al-Fitr rolls around in early August, perhaps we will see that joy and cheer in the West Bank and Gaza, after prisoners are released, but immediately after that, questions will begin. Where do we go from here? Maybe money will start to flow in, maybe new infrastructure will be built, perhaps even a Palestinian airport. But at the end of the day, every state needs sovereign borders and independence. Abbas and his team know that the Palestinian peoples’ patience is wearing thin. If they don’t achieve these goals in this next round of talks, they will have to answer to their constituents, not Kerry – and then Ramallah's Manara Square could easily become Tahrir.