Obama’s weakness in front of Netanyahu will inevitably rebound badly on Abbas, writes Khalid Amayreh in Ramallah
The mood at the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been visibly lugubrious following the “New York fiasco”, a reference to last week’s three-way meeting involving President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Most observers in occupied Palestine have viewed the outcome of the meeting as a political and propaganda victory for Netanyahu, a setback for Obama, and an outright defeat for Abbas. Following the tripartite meeting, which Palestinian sources intimate Abbas agreed to attend under duress, Obama urged the parties to resume stalled peace talks without preconditions.
The Palestinians interpreted the phrase “without conditions” as amounting to an American acknowledgment, however tacit and begrudging, that Israel won’t have to completely and perpetually freeze Jewish settlement activities before the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. The PA was further upset when Obama reiterated this view in his address before the UN General Assembly last week.
Some PLO officials, such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, chose to see the “glass half-full” in Obama’s statements, especially his reference to “pursuing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders”. Abed Rabbo said the PA was pleased with Obama’s decision to hold another round of preliminary talks in the interest of bridging gaps between the parties. He added, however, that the PA refused to retreat from its position that Israel would have to freeze all its settlement activities, including in East Jerusalem, before peace talks could resume.
“Our message is clear. We have not retreated from our demands, and relinquishing them will lead to a diplomatic disaster,” he said.
For many months now, especially since Obama came to power, the PA has been undertaking to refrain from returning to the negotiating table with Israel in the absence of a complete freeze of settlement construction in the occupied territories. Fatah adopted the same position during the group’s Sixth Congress held in Bethlehem more than two months ago. Hence, it would be a public relations disaster for the Fatah-dominated PA to abandon this position since doing so would seriously undermine its image, especially vis-à-vis Hamas. Hamas would use any “retreat” as a propaganda tool against Fatah in the upcoming Palestinian elections, which may take place in the second half of 2010.
On the other hand, saying “No” to the Obama administration, by insisting that the US force Israel to freeze all settlement activities as a precondition for the resumption of the moribund peace process, might eventually boomerang back and prove a diplomatic liability for the Palestinians. Indeed, there is always the risk that the Obama administration might be prompted to blame the weak Palestinian leadership for “stalling” and “stonewalling”, especially if Netanyahu continues to promote his posture that it is the Palestinians, not Israel, that are hindering the resumption of the peace process.
PA officials are still at a loss analysing and interpreting Obama’s failure to force the Israeli government to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank. Several questions have been asked in this regard. For example, was the three-way meeting in New York a belated recognition by the Obama administration of its inability to pressure Israel on the issue of settlements, or just a tactical retreat aimed at outmanoeuvring Netanyahu by exposing his rejectionist discourse towards peace with the Palestinians? Also, has the Obama administration changed tactics and is it now focussing on determining an “endgame” strategy rather than getting bogged down with “symptomatic” and “secondary” issues such as settlements?
Most Palestinians seem unwilling to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, especially in light of the victorious display of Netanyahu and his government. One Palestinian official in Ramallah, who didn’t wish to be identified, wondered if Obama hasn’t duped the Palestinians and the entire Arab world. “Many thought that he was a sort of Messiah who would solve all problems and force Israel to end the occupation. It is now clear that Obama is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to exert pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion. So if he couldn’t get Israel to freeze the construction of a few settler units, would it not be naïve on our part to expect him to get Israel to return to 1967 borders?”
Publicly, the PA continues to hold firm on its position regarding the settlements. Abbas was quoted this week as saying, “It is unacceptable for negotiations to resume while the Israeli side doesn’t respect its obligations under the roadmap.” The Palestinian leader said further that Israel would have to agree on two issues before negotiations could begin, namely freezing all West Bank settlement expansion and stipulating an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders. This week, Netanyahu said “No” to both, saying during a pre-Yom Kippur interview that Israel would “never ever return to the 1967 borders” or “freeze settlement construction in Judea and Samaria”.
The perceived failure by Obama to overrule Netanyahu on the settlement expansion issue is not only seriously corroding Palestinian — and Arab — confidence in the US administration, but is also potentially undermining the Western-backed leadership of Abbas and the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Following the New York meeting, from which Netanyahu emerged the sole winner, veteran Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi warned that Obama’s failure to win a settlement freeze, along with his reluctance to hold Israel accountable for its defiance, was seriously undermining the standing of Abbas in the eyes of his own people.
For its part, Hamas has reacted to the “expected negative outcome” of the New York meeting by blaming Abbas for “counting too much on the Obama administration”. The Islamic group issued a statement saying, “Israel would only give up the occupied territories and end the occupation if it is forced to. Abbas must stop deceiving and misleading the Palestinian people by attaching hopes on useless and pointless negotiations with Israel.”