Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent his chief negotiator Saeb Erekat to Washington after having given up on two of his three preconditions for negotiations. Israel did not freeze building in the settlements, nor did it recognize the 1967 lines as a basis for the future Palestinian state. Even the Israeli commitment to release all pre-Oslo prisoners seemed elusive in Palestinian eyes.
Back home in Ramallah, spirits were low on Tuesday as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began their talks in Washington, DC.
Coverage of the event in Palestinian media was minimal; with laconic accounts of firm American and relative Israeli optimism, taken from Western news agencies, leading in both official PA dailies Al-Ayyam and Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah. Palestinian statements could hardly be found, and officials were unwilling to discuss negotiations with The Times of Israel.
Abbas’s pledge from Cairo Tuesday, that the future Palestinian state will include not one Israeli soldier or civilian (repeating a statement he made in 2010), did little to assuage the bleak mood on the Palestinian street. It is a state that few today can envision, observers in Ramallah said.
“The meeting of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington constitutes a certain diplomatic breakthrough following a three-year freeze,” read an article in Palestinian daily Al-Quds, quickly adding that “it seems as though people in Israel and the Palestinian territories do not have high hopes regarding the renewal of peace efforts.”
Abbas, claimed Palestinian political scientist Basem Ezbidi, was forced to restart negotiations after realizing that the Arab Spring had utterly shelved the Palestinian issue. The PA, he added, was completely dependent on American funding, to the tune of $400 million a year, which could be harmed if the American administration did not get its way.
“Abbas wants to do something in the field of peace, because domestically he is incapable of anything. Reconciliation with Hamas is dead and his legitimacy as president is constantly questioned,” Ezbidi, who teaches at Ramallah’s Bir Zeit University, told The Times of Israel. “He wants to remain present in the Palestinian arena.”
‘Abbas wants to do something in the field of peace, because domestically he is incapable of anything. Reconciliation with Hamas is dead and his legitimacy as president is constantly questioned’
Public frustration over the Palestinian return to negotiations — having seemingly given up on most previous terms of reference — was voiced in a demonstration in Ramallah on Sunday, which was quickly quashed by PA police.
“People are scared to speak their mind. We have a police state here in Palestine,” Ezbidi said.
But that assertion didn’t necessarily apply to all journalists, even those writing for government media. In an op-ed published Tuesday by PA daily Al-Ayyam, Palestinian columnist Hani Al-Masri wrote that Abbas had a number of alternatives to the “futile negotiations” he has decided to engage in.
He could, for instance, continue the bid to win full UN recognition for a Palestinian state. He could tie all future negotiations to prior international resolutions. He could insist on holding negotiations within an international framework and not under exclusive American auspices, with the Quartet bearing “false witness.”
“All this requires adopting a strategy of resistance in order for negotiations to reap the fruits,” wrote Al-Masri.
Ezbidi said he knows not one Palestinian who believes negotiations will lead to an independent Palestinian state
However Abbas is more interested in portraying himself as the moderate heir to Yasser Arafat, whom the US considered “a radical personality,” claimed Ezbidi.
“Abbas doesn’t want the Americans to think that he is like Arafat. He sees himself as moderate, flexible, and wants others to see him as such too,” Ezbidi said.
Abbas’s ostensible kowtowing to American wishes has cost him some points on the Palestinian street. Ezbidi said he knows not one Palestinian who believes negotiations will lead to an independent Palestinian state.
Still, “people say that negotiations are harmless because they ensure financial support [from the US],” he said. “People are hoping for their salaries, not for independence, a state, or other important issues.”