The so-called “secret” negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis began in a celebratory atmosphere in Washington as the two delegations met around a breakfast table, writes Abdel Bari Atwan.
Under the watchful eye of American Secretary of State John Kerry, who convened the meeting, the participants exchanged smiles and compliments – especially Dr Saeb Erekat and Mrs Tzipi Livni, who go back a very long way.
Unfortunately the Palestinian delegation went into these negotiations without having had any of its pre-conditions met, whether Israeli acceptance of the 1967 borders or the suspension of settlement-building in the occupied areas of the West Bank.
The only bone thrown to the delegation was the phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom have spent thirty years behind bars and who – according to Israeli security officials – no longer pose any threat to the Israelis because of their mature age.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah has blown up this great Israeli “concession,” attempting to magnify it and considering it a huge achievement, but PA officials forget that the Hamas movement, their traditional political rival, succeeded in liberating 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, with the same achieved by Ahmed Jibril in the notorious “seagull” prisoner exchange deal in Lebanon in 1979.
The Shalit deal was clear – 1,000 prisoners released in exchange for one kidnapped soldier. But the PA’s recent prisoner release deal comes in exchange for massive political concessions which might – in light of the current Palestinian and Arab collapse – develop into the fundamentals being neglected if and when an agreement is reached. For twenty years of negotiations and meetings, Israel has consistently failed to make even one tangible compromise or commit to applying a single one of the agreements’ terms. In exchange it has received full compliance from the Palestinian side, including coordination on security. The Palestinian negotiators will even return to square one – negotiating the 1967 borders as the borders of the imaginary Palestinian state.
While Dr Erekat sits with his counterpart Mrs Livni in the closed halls of Washington, examining maps and discussing the scale of the sacrifices relating to these borders, the Israeli government continues its non-stop settlement projects. The sacrifices are of course to be offered by the Palestinian side, not the Israeli.
The question that strongly suggests itself here is: where did all this sudden American insistence on getting both parties around the negotiation table come from, and why at this precise time? Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, offered an intriguing answer to these enquiries when he said that launching the peace process would help achieve the strategic interests of Israel, without providing any explanation of what these interests are, and without naming peace with its Palestinian neighbour as one of them.
Israel’s strategic interests
I volunteer to explain and analyse these strategic interests of Israel, which can be summarized in two main points: The first point is destroying Iranian nuclear facilities, the top priority target of Netanyahu’s government. It can’t be ruled out that he agreed to enter into negotiations as part of a deal with America containing a promise Washington would support him in any war he decides to pursue against Iran in the near future.
The second is fear of the alternative to the decaying two state solution – the bi-national state. This would means absorbing more than three million Palestinians into Israel, which would destroy Netanyahu’s dream of demographic victory and declaring Israel a “pure Jewish state.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has become the prisoner of American financial aid. He cannot reject any proposals or orders because he realises that delaying the salaries of 160,000 Palestinians PA employees for more than two months would mean an intifada (uprising), not only against Israel and its occupation, but also against his authority because, for reasons of personal interest, he would stand against it.
Abbas has repeated several times that he would not allow such an uprising, which explains the fierce and harsh response of his security forces to dozens of protesters who demonstrated in Ramallah against resuming the negotiations, mostly from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He was behaving exactly as Arab dictators have done, and still do, because peaceful freedom of expression doesn’t exist in his dictionary.
President Abbas’ stances have done and continue to do dramatic damage to the Palestinian people and their just cause. They push Arabs and Muslims away from both, and aggravate the current state of division among Palestinians.
The Hamas movement committed several mistakes when it put all its eggs in the Muslim Brotherhood basket and abandoned its allies and supporters at a time of growing polarization in the Arab world.
But President Abbas, who strongly berated Hamas for this move, made the same mistake when he put his eggs in the basket of the Egyptian military coup, and before that the American basket, holding out for a false mirage of peace, and humiliating negotiations.
I have worked in journalism for forty years, and never in my life have I seen Arab interest in the Palestinian cause deteriorate to this unprecedented level. Responsibility for this disappointing state of affairs lies with the two sides of the Palestinian political equation: Fatah and Hamas. They are both working for an illusion at the expense of the Palestinian cause, and falling into the traps made by Arab and international polarizing forces. And so, the Palestinian cause no longer carries weight, and independent Palestinian national decision-making has dissolved.
Abdel Bari Atwan is one of the Arab world’s most prominent journalists and the former editor of al Quds al Arabi. You can follow him on twitter at @abdelbariatwan