RAMALLAH // Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's chairman, was given a mandate to pursue US-mediated indirect negotiations with the Israeli government at a meeting yesterday. The meeting in Ramallah, that also included the central committee of Mr Abbas's Fatah faction, came a day after George Mitchell, the US envoy, held separate meetings with Mr Abbas and Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, in spite of opposition from Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, and widespread scepticism over whether the talks will lead anywhere.
The Palestinian commitment to the proximity talks remains highly contingent on various circumstances. PLO officials have already warned that continued Israeli settlement construction could end talks and delegates at the meeting yesterday were assured that Mr Abbas was pursuing negotiations only after receiving US guarantees that Israel would not undertake any new settlement construction in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.
"The United States will take a firm political position on any provocations that influence the path of the political process and the negotiations," Yasser Abed Rabbo, a PLO official, said after the meeting. But on Friday, the Israeli government intimated that it might "legalise" two settlement outposts deep in the West Bank, Hersha and Givat Hayovel, thus already placing a potential obstacle in the way of talks. The decision, while not final, was met with strong support from right-wing parliamentarians and officials, such as Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister and a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party, Likud.
"Netanyahu chose the right way," Mr Ayalon said, "the way of the Likud, to legalise all outposts." While all Jewish settlements in occupied territory are considered illegal under international law, Israeli law distinguishes between them, and only outposts, those established without express government permission, are considered illegal. Under the 2003 US-sponsored road map plan for peace, Israel was supposed to have begun dismantling such outposts. But only three out of about 105 have been removed since and should the Netanyahu government now decide to legalise Hersha and Givat Hayovel, it would put Mr Abbas in a very delicate position and put to the test any guarantees Washington may have offered the Palestinians.
"Israel has in the past used negotiations as a pretext to create new facts on the ground," said Mkhaimer Abusada, a Palestinian analyst based in Gaza. "That's why the Palestinian leadership and Palestinians in general have lost confidence in negotiations." The legalisation of two outposts would not only rock that confidence even more, it would also serve to underline the position of Hamas, Mr Abbas's Islamist rival. Hamas on Friday voiced its opposition to the resumption of talks, calling them "absurd" and warning that they would only "give the Israeli occupation an umbrella to commit more crimes against the Palestinians".
But Mr Abusada said that while Hamas may be giving expression to widespread Palestinian suspicions about Israeli intentions, it is not offering an alternative. "Hamas says resistance, but resistance has stopped, at least in the Gaza Strip. When it says the Palestinians shouldn't go to indirect negotiations, that's fine, but it needs to provide realistic options." Neither Mr Abusada nor Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst based in Tel Aviv, held out much hope for the indirect talks.
Prospects, said Mr Alpher, are poor because neither side is in a position to do a deal and the best that might be hoped for is a period of calm until after midterm congressional elections in November when the US "might reassess its position". "Both sides are primarily entering negotiations to placate the US," said Mr Abusada. "The chance of reaching any agreement or securing any progress is very limited."
Mr Mitchell, who arrived in the region on Wednesday, has already twice met Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, as well as Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, and Tzipi Livni, who heads the Israeli opposition, on this trip. The far-right composition of the Israeli coalition government is widely seen as one of the major obstacles to progress in talks. Ms Livni's Kadima party is the largest party in the Israeli parliament.
Should it enter the coalition it could relieve Mr Netanyahu of his reliance on the far right, whether Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party or the religious Shas party, both of which are likely to bolt the government should negotiations show any progress on either settlements or East Jerusalem. Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, the only non-right wing party in the current coalition, over the weekend called for Kadima to be included in the coalition along with all the current parties. However, Mr Netanyahu is of the right and any coalition change seems unlikely in the short term. "I don't see how Netanyahu could add Kadima and not lose part of the right wing," said Mr Alpher. "[Coalition politics] present a major potential stumbling block to negotiations."