The announcement this week that the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership has agreed to resume "direct talks" with Israel, virtually without any conditions, has generated a lot of consternation among the Palestinian people as well as within virtually all political groups. A clearly embarrassed and frustrated PA has been struggling to justify and explain its decision that seems to have been taken under duress, as the Obama administration has been exerting pressure on a vulnerable leadership to refrain from placing "sticks in the wheels of the peace process".
PA officials and spokesperson have vehemently denied that the PA is capitulating to Israel. They have reaffirmed earlier positions that the PA is still committed to preserving Palestinian rights and that the creation of a viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state remains the central target of peace negotiations.
But such pronouncements by the Ramallah leadership are not being taken seriously, neither by Israel itself nor by the bulk of Palestinian political forces, with the latter accusing the PA leadership of ignoring overwhelming public disapproval of talks with Israel under existing circumstances. And now the issue has placed Fatah -- the backbone of the PA -- on the defensive.
While PA spokesmen carefully avoided the press, because apparently they had nothing to say to defend the latest PA decision, some senior Fatah leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, have warned that they will boycott the upcoming talks if Israel fails to freeze settlement construction. Both Israel and Washington reject the precondition, with the US State Department officials arguing that all "contentious issues" will be discussed during the talks.
From the American vantage point, this means that an Israeli decision to terminate its partial settlement expansion freeze -- adopted several months ago and that is due to expire late September -- should not impede the commencement of talks. Earlier, Abbas warned in letters sent to Obama and other Quartet representatives that failing to maintain the partial construction freeze would bring talks to a grinding halt. "It is impossible to conduct negotiations alongside settlement construction," Abbas wrote.
The Americans, the broker, referee and judge of the "peace process", have not taken a final stand on the settlement freeze issue. Sources in Washington have suggested that the Obama administration might take a "middle stand" on the issue by allowing Israel to build in major settlements (those that would be annexed to Israel in the context of a possible final peace settlement), while the settlement freeze would continue to be observed in other small settlements east of the Separation Wall.
This formula is supported by some Israeli officials, such as Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor. However, hardcore rightwing ministers in the Israeli cabinet are opposed to the compromise on ideological grounds.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has reiterated his draconian conditions for the creation of a Palestinian state. Speaking during a government session this week, Netanyahu warned that there would be no peace agreement with the Palestinians unless the PA recognised Israel as a Jewish state. In the Israeli political and ideological lexicon, "Jewish state" means forgetting that Israel is a settler-colonial state and institutionalising discrimination against Palestinians that remain in Israel. It also invokes the possibility of "evicting" hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Israeli citizens.
Netanyahu said there were three conditions without which no agreement with the Palestinians could be reached: meeting Israel's security needs; Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; and Palestinian acknowledgement that the agreement that might be reached would constitute the end of the conflict. If Netanyahu insists on his conditions, which he has been reiterating at every occasion, it means that there can be no peace agreement with the Palestinians, irrespective of the intensity or sincerity of US efforts.
Some Israeli circles hope that the US will eventually force the weak PA leadership, using carrot-and-stick tactics, to surrender to the fait accompli and accept a dwarfed Palestinian "statelet" under virtual Israeli control. These circles have been encouraged by the "positive" modes of PA management of talks with Israel, especially since the arrival of the Likud-led government to power in Israel more than a year ago. The PA has consistently abandoned crucial preconditions for the resumption of talks with the Israeli government that critics argue shows that the PA leadership can give concessions to Israel if sufficiently pressured by Washington.
Hamas, which has been taking political advantage of what it deems "humiliating PA concessions" to Israel, has lashed out at the PA's leadership for "gambling with the national cause of the Palestinian people". "It is obvious to all those who have minds and eyes and senses that the Ramallah leadership can't be entrusted with the Palestinian cause. This bankrupt leadership seems to be more answerable to the Americans than it is to the Palestinian people," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a prominent Islamist spokesman based in the Gaza Strip.
Abu Zuhri castigated Fatah's "silence and betrayal of the national cause in favour of some immediate and other benefits". He added: "We in Hamas consider these talks as catastrophic whose main goal is the liquidation of the Palestinian cause."
Similarly, another Islamist party, the Hizbul Tahrir, or Liberation Party, lambasted the PA leadership for "hankering after a deformed state that has no sovereignty or authority over its borders, a state that would be controlled by Israel, a state whose raison d'être would be to brutalise and pacify the Palestinian people on Israel's behalf."
Given the clear American bias towards Israel, clearly malicious Israeli intent and insolence, as well as the inherent weakness of the Palestinian position, it is more than likely that the upcoming round of direct talks between Israel and the PA will lead nowhere. In the final analysis, the huge chasm between the two sides can't be bridged using the classical tools of international relations.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that Washington, with all its cumulative experience with things Middle Eastern doesn't realise the near impossibility of reaching a true historical solution to the conflict in Palestine-Israel. Perhaps Washington has come to think that an open-ended or interminable peace process is the solution.
For the Palestinians, this would mean Israel continuing to create facts on the ground while they continue negotiating and complaining. In a phrase, absurdum ad infinitum.