From Ben Lynfield in Jerusalem — Left in the lurch by his Arab League brethren, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is under enormous Amercan pressure to unconditionally renew direct peace negotiations with Israel.
Analysts and politicians in Ramallah believe he will cave in, thus undermining his credibility for tough concessions that will be needed further down the line.
Mr Abbas had hoped the Arab League, which met in Cairo on Thursday, would back up his refusal of direct bilateral talks unless Israel first commits to borders for a viable Palestinian state and halts its expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank.
But the League, which is dominated by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, calculated that it is more important to please Barack Obama than Abbas. It backed a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though it said the timing and conditions should be up to the Palestinians.
Israel and the United States were quick to welcome the Arab League move, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying Israel was prepared to launch ”direct and honest discussions” with the Palestinian Authority within days.
But it would be a mistake to believe the Arab league step or the mustering of American pressure on Abbas alone brings peace closer.
For that, a stronger, more credible Abbas is needed, rather than a hapless leader without anything to show in the way of concesssions from Israel.
After two decades in which peace talks were accompanied by further Israeli consolidation in the West Bank, Palestinians have little faith in the ”peace process”. The architect of the 1993 Oslo agreement on self-rule, Mr Abbas for years kept negotiating while Israeli bulldozers did the real talking on the ground.
But after Obama’s inauguration, Abbas decided to has stake his credibility on there being a full settlement freeze before any direct talks, mistakenly believing the US President would back him.
A freeze is something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted, although he agreed to a limited slow-down in settlements.
However, on Wednesday Mr Netanyahu said he would not extend the slowdown past its September 26 expiry. Doing so would be impossible politically and would bring down his coalition, he said.
Direct negotiations have been suspended since Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, beginning in late 2008.
Mr. Netanyahu has in mind that hard-line right-wing lawmakers may bolt if he extends the slowdown. However, even if that were the case, he could still turn to the centrist Kadima party — the largest one in parliament — for the backing he would need for making concessions to the Palestinians.
Mr. Abbas, however, has no such fallback option
”Abbas is so weak that he will go back to negotiations even though he knows he will gain nothing,” predicted Hassan Khreisheh, an independent Palestinian MP from Tulkarem in the West Bank.
Mr Abbas’s weakness stems from his reliance on European financial support, the continuing power struggle with Hamas that leaves him in control of only half the Palestinian territory, and the Arab states weak position vis-a-vis Washington.
Going back to talks without preconditions ”will hurt Abbas a lot. There is a big gap between the people and the leadership. Abbas and [top negotiator] Saeb Erekat will have no more credibility among the Palestinian people.” Mr Khreisheh said.
Veteran commentator Hani Masri predicts that it will be ”political suicide” for Abbas to return unconditionally to talks. The result, he says, will be a further weakening of the Palestinian Authority.
Mr Masri said there would be ”no support and no legitimacy” for Mr Abbas.
Not only Hamas but also his own Fatah movement opposes an unconditional return to the talks. The latter reiterated that in a statement Thursday night after the Arab League decision.
Mr Netanyahu reportedly told the visiting Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Moratinos on Wednesday that only after a final status agreement is reached will it be possible to muster enough support within the Israeli public to push it through. That is a rationale for continued stalling and stonewalling on settlements.
But there is no reason why preference should be given to Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic political exigencies over Mr. Abbas’s.