x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Palestinian talks fall off the radar

The crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons and renewed hopes of a multilateral deal with Iran over its nuclear programme have, if anything, worsened the Palestinians’ predicament, said Palestinian Authority officials and analysts.

RAMALLAH // Within weeks after the Arab uprisings erupted in late 2010, Palestinians began voicing concerns that their struggle with Israel, the region’s main diplomatic preoccupation for decades, would be pushed into the shadows.

As predicted, the upheavals in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Syria soon replaced the Palestinian cause as the centre of diplomatic attention in Arab and western capitals.

Now the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons and renewed hopes of a multilateral deal with Iran over its nuclear programme have, if anything, worsened the Palestinians’ predicament, said Palestinian Authority (PA) officials and analysts.

“Nobody’s talking about the Palestinians,” said Zakaria al Qaq, a lecturer on security issues at Jerusalem’s Al Quds University. “Once again, we’re alone.”

The resumption of talks with the Israelis in July, spurred by the dogged efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry, provided a fleeting glimmer of hope. Since then, however, the negotiations have been orphaned by Washington, which instead has focused on efforts to cobble together a deal to put Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international supervision.

A particular source of dismay for the Palestinians is the absence of Martin Indyk, the chief US envoy to the talks, from all but one of the six negotiating sessions that have taken place so far.

“We complained to the [US] administration but they’ve done nothing,” the Palestinian official said.

Mr Kerry has acknowledged that his preoccupation with other issues has come at the expense of the Palestinian-Israeli talks and reportedly has promised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he would devote more time to advancing them.

Despite these reassurances, however, there is a lingering suspicion among Palestinian officials that the Israelis and Americans have again abandoned Mr Abbas and left him politically exposed, even after he appeased Israel and the US by opting in favour of talks instead of further moves for Palestinian statehood in multilateral organisations.

That suspicion was reinforced after the restart of negotiations, when Israel announced the construction of more than 3,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Still, the PA officials have little choice but to mute their criticism, due to their dependence on aid from Washington. Mr Abbas does not want to anger Washington, Palestinian officials said.

“They are doing everything by the book because they know they will be blamed if the talks fail,” said Nour Odeh, a former PA spokeswoman.

Labib Kamhawi, an independent political analyst who lives in Amman, said there are precedents for continuing some semblance of talks and crises swell elsewhere, citing Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives during the US-led invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

“This seems to show the Americans want to demonstrate there is some sort of process going on,” he said, “hoping this might release tensions in the region.”

More worrying still to the Palestinians are recent events in Egypt, which have seen Israel emboldened by the ouster of the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, and his replacement by a military-led interim government, Mr Kamhawi said.

“If we are to conclude from all the latest developments, we can safely conclude that Israel is the only country that has benefitted from the situation,” he said.

If there is any Palestinian that can be said to be worse off than a resident of the West Bank, it is a resident of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Israel has been joined in its blockade of the Gaza Strip by Egypt, which is collapsing the tunnels that have served as a vital economic channel to the outside world. Cairo fears that Hamas militants could join the Muslim Brotherhood if it chooses to take up arms against efforts by the interim government to eradicate it.

“From the perspective of Hamas, this [isolation] is nothing less than a catastrophe,” said Yaron Ezrahi, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Many ordinary Palestinians say that the removal of Mr Morsi, Hamas’s ally in Cairo, has undermined the one alternative to Palestinian-Israeli talks that could substantially improve the Palestinians’ predicament: Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

For Fatah officials who chaffed at being pushed aside by Mr Morsi as Cairo’s preferred Palestinian political faction, his ouster has brought quiet gloating. For leaders of Hamas, it has aroused “paranoia,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“They do have a real fear of some kind of collusion between Israel, the PA and Egypt,” he said.

The addition of yet another source of antagonism between the two main Palestinian political factions has shattered hopes of Palestinian reconciliation any time soo

“Nobody has faith in these factions to do this anymore,” said Mr Al Qaq of Al Quds University.

hnaylor@thenational.ae