At their White House meeting on Monday, US President Barack Obama emphasized to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the need to resume and extend talks with Israel, which broke down in November, rather than taking unilateral steps at the UN.
The good news is that Abbas didn’t reject the US president’s request out of hand. The not-so-good news is that Abbas said he would need to receive something from the Israelis if he were to agree: a settlement freeze, and a further prisoner release — beyond the fourth group of terror convicts scheduled to go free on March 29. And not just any prisoners, but, according to the London Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, The Prisoner, Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti. Arab and Palestinian sources confirmed the reports to The Times of Israel.
Is this a case of naiveté on Abbas’s part, or is it a clever ploy to prove that Israel is not ready to take a step that would foster more talks? It actually looks like neither, and more like a sort of gamble that could pay off for Abbas (if less probably for Israel).
Abbas knows that Barghouti’s release would allow him the breathing room to negotiate for many more months without fearing public criticism. Barghouti, the most popular leader in the territories today, could even sit by his side in the talks. That would be a major coup for Abbas in the eyes of the Palestinian public. Barghouti’s release would also strengthen Abbas’s support in Fatah.
And perhaps most importantly for Abbas, he could finally appoint a successor — Barghouti. This would enable Abbas to keep his primary rival, Mohammad Dahlan, from taking the presidency. Abbas knows that Dahlan, sitting in the UAE, has no electoral chance against Barghouti, who enjoys endless praise for his role in the Second Intifada and his conviction on five murder charges.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the White House meeting “long and difficult,” adding with relief that Obama did not present a framework agreement to Abbas. (This in contrast to Israel’s Channel 2 news Friday night, which quoted unnamed Israeli and American sources claiming Abbas rejected the framework plan, and gave “three no’s” on core issues of dispute.) Erekat, unlike Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, had the good sense not to insult the US leader or his own boss in his wrap-up of events.)
The work now falls on US Secretary of State John Kerry, who will be forced, as usual, to mediate between the sides and manage the Middle Eastern ‘bazaar’ in future trips to the region — to ask the Israelis to give something that would see Abbas return to the talks.
Though Abbas sees Barghouti’s release as some kind of magic key, it is highly unlikely that anyone in Israel is willing to contemplate such a move, even as a means of keeping the talks going — which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants. Even now, well before the sides have begun to talk about Barghouti, the scheduled fourth release of veteran security prisoners has run into problems.
The prisoners are supposed to go free in barely a week’s time. Most of them are not well-known to the Israeli public, and most are too old to represent any danger to Israel. Still, it won’t be easy for Netanyahu to release the group demanded by the PA, which includes 14 Israeli Arabs, without knowing first that Abbas will continue talks beyond their scheduled April cessation.
Abbas, for his part, is insisting that Israel must set free the final agreed group of prisoners whether or not talks continue, and refuses to condition their release on the political process.
Thus the sides are at another standstill, without anyone mentioning settlement freezes or the release of a man serving five life terms for murder.