What’s next, Abbas?

What’s next, Abbas?
Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah

Spurned in Washington, can President Abbas defer any longer the imperative of re-establishing Palestinian national unity?

The obvious failure of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s latest visit to Washington has been reverberating through Palestinian society, with many intellectuals and pundits advising Abbas to “quit” or at least stop acting at the US administration’s beck and call. Some critics have even called for dismantling the PA and abandoning the two-state solution strategy in favour of the one-state solution of a democratic state for all its citizens.

Abbas, in a frank and daring admission, told reporters following his meeting with President Bush at the White House last week that he failed to obtain a commitment from the US administration to pressure Israel into halting its wave of Jewish-only settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The intensive settlement expansion drive brazenly defies US-led peace efforts, including the Quartet-backed roadmap and last year’s Annapolis conference.

For their part, the Israelis deny that they are reneging on commitments or pledges. Israeli leaders argue that they are only meeting housing needs related to “natural growth” within existing settlements. They also cite a private “understanding” contained in a letter sent by President Bush to former prime minister Ariel Sharon whereby Israel was given a green light to continue expanding settlements irrespective of peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Bush administration has been reticent to acknowledge this supposed “understanding”. However, its enduring refusal to rebuke Israel for its continued colonisation of Palestinian land underscores the extent of US-Israeli connivance against Palestinian interests and exposes the duplicity of US political calculations with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Palestinian sources close to PA-Israeli talks last week reported that Israeli negotiators on many occasions confronted their Palestinian counterparts with a series of written “pledges” and “letters” from the Bush administration assuring Israel that major Jewish settlements, at least, would be annexed into Israel in the context of a final-status deal with the Palestinians. Hence, according to Israeli negotiators, there was no justification for “vociferous” Palestinian protest every time Israel decided to build additional settler units in the West Bank.

Reportedly, Abbas was also especially upset by President Bush’s refusal to pledge that any contemplated Palestinian “state” would be created on 100 per cent of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967. The implications of Bush’s refusal are as clear as they are painful for the Palestinian leadership; namely that the Palestinians should stop dreaming of a full and total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

According to sources within Abbas’s immediate circle, the PA leader has come to feel “betrayed” and “deceived” by the Bush administration. “We thought there was only one game in town, and that was the roadmap,” one PA official told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity. “But it turned out that the Bush administration had been giving Israel all sorts of assurances and pledges behind our back, which violate and nullify the essence of the roadmap.”

Asked what he thought the PA would do next, the frustrated official said: “I would lie to you if I told you I knew the answer.”

The Weekly asked senior Fatah official Hatem Abdul-Qader for his view as to what the PA should do in light of US refusals to pressure Israel to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. “I think it is time for all of us, including President Abbas, to realise that it is probably too late for the creation of a Palestinian state,” he said. “All peace talks with Israel seem to have been a gigantic fiasco — a total failure and big lie.”

Like many PA and Fatah officials, Abdul- Qader believes that Abbas is facing a real dilemma in having to choose between appeasing the US by compromising the Palestinian cause, or rebuilding Palestinian national unity with Hamas, which would upset Israel and the US and which might lead to the reinstitution of US-led sanctions on the PA. “It is clear that talks with Israel have reached a dead end. It is also clear that Israel is using the national rift between Fatah and Hamas to impose its conditions on us,” Abdul-Qader said.

“All the promises and pledges the Bush administration has made to us have evaporated,” Abdul-Qader continues. “The US is only indulging in an open-ended process of deception for the purpose of giving Israel the time it needs to build more settlements and make the task of creating a viable Palestinian state unrealistic and unachievable.”

Asked what he would advise Abbas to do in light of receding prospects of reaching a breakthrough before the end of 2008, Abdul-Qader said he would advise the PA president to “pay attention to our internal situation and stop bidding on fruitless talks with Israel. Abbas should be courageous enough to tell the Americans that he won’t sacrifice paramount Palestinian national interests for the sake of American and Israeli interests.”

Abdul-Qader adds that in order for Abbas to be able to say “No” to the US and Israel, Hamas “will have to make the first step by accepting the Yemeni initiative”. Fatah could facilitate this by refraining from “making impossible preconditions for national reconciliation”.

Earlier this week, Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip called on Abbas to “draw the correct conclusion” from the “rebuff” he received in Washington. “We call on President Mahmoud Abbas to stop seeking water from the American mirage. We urge him to immediately embark on tangible steps to re-establish national unity. It is only with national unity that we can restore our rights and safeguard the vital interests of our people.”

Abbas has not said what he will do next apart from continuing in talks with Israel. Hani Al-Masri, a prominent political analyst in Ramallah, told the Weekly that Abbas’s dilemma “stems mainly from the fact that he lacks a plan-B.” Abbas “trusted the Americans too much and for too long. He should have explored alternatives to this futile process.”

“He should extend his hand to Hamas and re- establish Palestinian national unity, irrespective of American and Israeli reactions. He should stop this futile process under whose rubric Israel is liquidating the Palestinian cause,” Al-Masri added.

Al-Masri acknowledges that if Abbas were to cut from the so-called “peace process”, the US and Israel would employ all kinds of sanctions, including starving the Palestinian population, to get him back in line. “But in the long run, [the US] will accept the fait accompli. After all, if we stand united, the whole world, including the Americans, will respect us. The ball is in our court, and no one else’s.”

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May 3, 2008 By Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah © Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2008/895/re1.htm
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