Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, feels pressure to return to the negotiating table, while Israel is reportedly prepared to make concessions that are not new to the process, but unprecedented for its prime minister. RAMALLAH // As the new decade begins, efforts are intensifying to launch another peace process between Palestinians and Israelis. On January 7, George Mitchell, the US envoy, is expected in the region to present both Israeli and Palestinian diplomats with Washington's latest proposal to bring the two sides together over the negotiating table.
After almost a year in the job, Mr Mitchell may well feel that his efforts this time around will finally reap some result. Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, held talks in Cairo with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president. Egyptian diplomats later said Mr Netanyahu had impressed with his willingness to press ahead. "I can't talk about details, but the prime minister was discussing positions that surpass in our estimate what we've heard from [Israel] in a long time," Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, said. "I can't say that he has come with changed positions, but he is moving forward."
It is not clear what impressed Egyptian diplomats so much, but Israeli media have suggested that Mr Netanyahu told Cairo that Israel was prepared to negotiate a two-state solution on the basis of 1967 borders and that Jerusalem would also be on the table. While that may not seem like much progress considering that all previous rounds of negotiations have been based on the same premises, they are unprecedented for Mr Netanyahu, who is also, reportedly, suggesting a summit in Sharm El-Sheikh later this month.
What is clear is that pressure is building on Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, to soften his position on returning to negotiations. Mr Abbas has refused to negotiate with Israel as long as it continues settlement construction in occupied territory, a very popular position on the Palestinian street. After US diplomats warmly welcomed a temporary and partial freeze that the Israeli government came up with in November, which excluded building for the "public good", building in occupied East Jerusalem and 3,000 housing units in the West Bank preapproved, Mr Abbas was left exposed.
The Palestinians continue to insist that the Israeli measure is not enough for them to return to negotiations. Nevertheless, say analysts, pressure is growing on Mr Abbas after Egypt appeared to endorse Mr Netanyahu's efforts to restart negotiations. "The Egyptians will now join the Americans in trying to convince the Palestinians to resume negotiations," said Ghassan Khatib, the head of the Palestinian Authority government's media office. "This will put the Palestinian leadership in a difficult position because the offer does not seem to include a settlement freeze."
Mr Khatib said it would be "very difficult" for Mr Abbas to agree to return to negotiations without a full settlement construction freeze. The public outcry over the PLO's handling of the Goldstone report in October, said Mr Khatib, was a "turning point" in Palestinian politics. "The Palestinian leadership can no longer do what it wants without considering public opinion." Moreover, it is not at all clear how serious Mr Netanyahu is about negotiations. In the past weeks, he has tried to lure away parliamentarians from the opposition Kadima party and formally invited the Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, to join the government, something Ms Livni rejected.
His efforts suggest, said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst, that Mr Netanyahu is preparing to bolster his coalition government in the event that any resumption of negotiations would see the more right-wing elements of that coalition leave. "There's room to speculate that this was one of his motives and this means that Mr Netanyahu assesses that there will be talks," said Mr Alpher. "Netanyahu lives from day to day, and I'm not sure if he even knows."
Mr Alpher said that should negotiations restart, Mr Netanyahu would likely try to "please everybody, only making everyone mad". Without shoring up his coalition, this could likely see his government fall. Mr Abbas, said Mr Alpher, "would be well-advised to put Netanyahu in that position." "The encounter between Israeli politics and the Palestinian issue can quickly become toxic again and you need someone with a stiffer spine than Netanyahu to work through it."
Certainly, the PLO needs to come up with some course of action to respond to the growing pressure. Accepting to return to negotiations while settlement building continues would be hugely unpopular among Palestinians and would only stiffen support for Mr Abbas's rivals in Hamas. To enter into negotiations with the current Israeli leadership simply to test the waters does not seem to be sufficient justification.