President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel-Palestine is being termed a “last chance visit” to revive the moribund peace process and save the two-state solution from looming demise.
Israel has already pre-empted the visit by announcing plans to build thousands of additional Jewish settler units near Ramallah in the heart of the West Bank. The expansion of the settlement of Beit Eil and other colonies throughout the West Bank is seen a calculated message of defiance to the US administration, say Palestinian officials.
The Israelis don’t seek to deny this intransigence as they continue invoke the old mantra that the West Bank is a “disputed” rather than “occupied” territory and that Jews have an inherent right to live anywhere in the “historic Jewish homeland”.
The frenzied and phenomenal expansion of settlements, which is coupled with an unprecedented demolition campaign in the vicinity of Al-Aqsa Mosque, is also a message to the Palestinians that it is futile to expect the US government to exert any meaningful pressure on Israel.
For its part, the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership is hoping that in his second term in the White House, President Obama will be freer to pressure Israel. Palestinian officials seem careful to sound responsive to US efforts lest the PA is blamed for the possible collapse of the political process.
However, with most Israelis firmly opposed to pulling back to 1967 borders, some Palestinian intellectuals and political commentators expect US pressure to target the Palestinians, not the Israelis, given the latter’s political clout in Washington, especially in Congress.
This is the view of Abdel-Sattar Kassem, professor of political science at An-Najah National University in Nablus in the northern West Bank.
“I think the Americans will pressure the weaker party, the Palestinian leadership, to give more concessions to the Israelis. And in light of past experience, I am not sure the PA will successfully withstand and resist the American pressure.”
Kassem said the PA is vulnerable to US pressure. “Their coffers are empty and I am afraid they would do American bidding if the Americans coupled their pressure with financial inducements.”
The US Congress is reportedly in the process of unfreezing aid to the PA in a gesture observers say is designed to encourage PA President Mahmoud Abbas to resume negotiations with Israel.
Abbas is likely to face tough opposition from within his Fatah Party and other PLO factions as well as from Hamas in case he crosses the so-called “national constants” or red lines. Palestinian national constants include total Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, the return of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, and repatriation of Palestinian refugees.
However, the PA chairman could always use financial incentives and disincentives to neutralise his opponents within the PLO. He could also argue that he is trying to save what can be saved of “Palestine” before it is too late.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is adopting highly maximalist positions in the hope of convincing the Americans to ask the other party to make “reciprocal concessions”. This tactic, Netanyahu calculates, would enable Israel to “maintain its vital interests” in the context of any final peace deal with the Palestinians.
This week, the Israeli prime minister repeated his extremist conditions for peace, which he voiced in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech.
Addressing an audience of American Jewish leaders, Netanyahu said any Palestinian entity West of the River Jordan would have to be completely demilitarised and less than completely independent.
Netanyahu, a master of prevarication, blamed the Palestinians for the stalled peace process, ignoring the phenomenal settlement expansion Israel has been carrying out relentlessly ever since he came to power nearly four years ago.
“To reach a solution means to negotiate in good faith. That means you don’t place preconditions. For the past four years the Palestinians regrettably placed conditions, time after time. My hope is that they leave them aside and get to the negotiating table.”
In his 2009 speech, Netanyahu said that any Palestinian state that might come into existence would have its borders and border crossings firmly under Israeli control. He also said that Israel would never leave Occupied Jerusalem, nor allow for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, uprooted by Jewish terrorists in 1948, back to their homes and villages in what is now Israel.
Moreover, Netanyahu vowed to keep the bulk of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and never return to the armistice lines of 4 June 1967.
Netanyahu’s extremist position can never be accepted by 99 per cent of Palestinians, which is why the Palestinians don’t take them seriously and wouldn’t discuss them before a respectable audience.
PESSIMISM: Most Palestinian officials and pundits are pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough in the stalled peace process. PA officials keep voicing the same platitudes about international law and legitimacy; they also regurgitate old hopes, which have become distant wishes, that the US would pressure Israel to end the occupation.
Other Palestinians, mainly critics of PA indecision and negotiating performance, hope that the PA leadership won’t give in to US financial blackmail.
Sources in Washington said this week that Congress was working on unfreezing $700 million for the PA. The funds were frozen after the PA took its statehood bid to the UN.
State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland said it was important for the PA to remain effective, adding that new Secretary of State John Kerry believed the funds would be released without delay. “It is in the interest of not only the Palestinians but Israel and the United States as well.”
Palestinians urge their leadership in Ramallah, especially President Abbas and the PLO Executive Committee, not to make any connection, implicit or explicit, between the political process and US funding of the PA regime.
The PA denies the existence of any such connection. However, critics charge that there is no such a thing as a free lunch and that the United States is not a charitable society.