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Cynicism on direct talks eclipses rhetoric

Since the Madrid Convention, no round of Israeli-Palestinian talks have been more shrouded in pessimism than the latest in Washington, says Sameeh Saab in an opinion article for Lebanese daily Annahar.

Since the Madrid Convention, no round of Israeli-Palestinian talks have been more shrouded in pessimism than the latest in Washington, says Sameeh Saab in an opinion article for Lebanese daily Annahar. US president Obama, seeking an external victory prior to the mid-term elections, has not excluded the possibility of failure. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas announced his readiness for talks even if the success rate is a mere one percent. Moreover, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in the negotiations on one hand while threatening to order the unfreezing of West Bank settler activities on the other.

This new round of negotiations has many reasons to founder. Mr Obama will not venture to vex Tel Aviv by insisting on halting the settlements. Blaming the Palestinians, as always, would be the US's safest bet to evade its responsibility in pressuring Israel to compromise. Mr Obama's rhetoric on the region's peace and security and US national interests will remain hollow if he is unable to compel Israel to accept a viable Palestinian state. Growing extremism within Israeli communities, reflective of the ruling elite's position, also contributes to a possible failure.

A mere few hours after the first direct talks began between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, US pundits talked of unrealistic "big hopes" and suggested "alternative plans" to avoid complete failure, says Mazen Hammad in Qatari newspaper Al Watan.

As the gap between both sides is very wide, the US media proposes striving for temporary solutions as a first step, in the hope of reaching a more comprehensive solution in the future. Such propositions are based on fears that the failure of the current round of negotiations would lead to a new wave of violence. But Palestinians are entitled to refuse partial or temporary agreements that stall peace efforts. They are also entitled to demand a final and comprehensive settlement that establishes a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Voices in Israel are also calling for this even before reaching an all-inclusive peace agreement. Such a state would cover 80-90% of the West Bank, which would mean the deportation of about 50 thousand Israeli settlers. No one, however, expects Mr Netanyahu to make such a generous offer. Former negotiator, Saeb Oraykat, had refused to accept any such solution as did Palestinian Authority's prime minister Salam Fayad who firmly rejects the partial deal concept. The Palestinians will not accept anything less than the offer of a state extending over all the territories occupied in 1967.

The region's political elite and Palestinian public opinion holds that direct talks will fail. But what if they are a success? asks Abdelbari Atwan, editor-in-chief of pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat. What if negotiations were to result in a forcefully imposed compromise on Palestinians through Arab conniving, Israeli oppression and US tyranny? Is the opposition prepared to face the disastrous fall out of a failure to guarantee Palestinian rights?

Sceptics might have grounds for censure based on the past lessons. Palestinians were able to stand their ground during Camp David talks in 2000 and rebuff US pressures. Mr Abbas adopted a clear strategy of never saying "no" to America to avoid being accused of sabotaging the peace process. He therefore has nothing to lose by agreeing to enter into talks. America know this well and Mr Netanyahu is assured of it. For that reason, they pressure Mr Abbas knowing that he will acquiesce to all their dictates.

These talks are based on Mr Netanyahu's agenda and in all outcomes he is set to gain, whether domestically or abroad. Failure would present him as a hero among his allies and his party. And in the case of success, the outcome would be an agreement to his own terms and conditions, namely the unification of Jerusalem and the acknowledgment of Israel as a Jewish state.

In an editorial, Emirati daily Al Bayan focused on Mr Obama's intentional omission of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat when mentioning "peace partners". This startling move invites interpretation. What is behind this neglect of the first peacemaker with Israel, who negotiated and signed agreements with five successive Israeli leaderships, and who earned a Nobel peace prize 17 years before Mr Obama?

Mr Obama may have sent the current Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas a strong message, pressuring him into a rare opportunity for peace. Otherwise, much like his predecessor, he will be forgotten. The talks have confirmed that Israelis want to turn the clock back. They still insist on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, thereby deleting an essential right of the Palestinian cause: the return of refugees.

The negotiations do not augur well for Palestinians. Any capitulation to them would result in criticism. This could end in economic sanctions that threaten the very existence of the Palestinian Authority. Bridging the gap is highly unlikely. Arabs must, therefore, not turn their back on the Palestinians and leave them prey to US extortion and Israeli maneuvers. * Digest compiled by Racha Markem @Email:RMakarem@thenational.ae

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