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    Middle East
     Feb 7, '14

Cornering a Palestinian man of peace
By Nicola Nasser

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stands at a crossroads both in his people's struggle for liberation and in his political career. He is cornered between the rock of his own rejecting constituency, and the hard place of the Israeli occupying power and their US sponsors.

Abbas has faced merciless pressure from Israeli negotiators and American mediators since peace talks resumed last July, despite his offering sweeping concessions and backtracking "on all

redlines". This threatens the process losing this brave Palestinian man of peace, a demise that could squander possibly the last opportunity for a so-called two-state solution.

To continue pressuring Abbas into yielding more concessions without any reciprocal rewards threatens the very reputation of strength that is needed to make his people accept such painful compromises.

The heavily "pro-Israel" US-proposed framework agreement that is emerging "appears to ask the Palestinians to accept peace terms that are worse than the Israeli ones they already rejected ... [This] will all but compel the Palestinians to reject it," Larry Derfner wrote in The National Interest on February 3.

Abbas "rejects all transitional, partial and temporary solutions", his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdaineh said on January 5, but that's exactly what the leaks of the blueprint of the "framework agreement" reveal.

Reportedly, the international Quartet on the Middle East, comprising the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, meeting on the sidelines of the Munich security conference last week, supported US Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to commit Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to his proposed "framework agreement".

Europe is tightening a rope around Abbas' neck. If the current US-backed talks with Israel fail, the continent has said it will not automatically continue to support the Palestinian Authority, Israel's Walla website reported on January 29.

US envoy Martyn Indyk said on January 31 that Kerry will be proposing the framework agreement to the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators "within a few weeks". However, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on the same day clarified in a statement that the contents of the framework are not final because "this is an ongoing process".

Historic versus political decisions
Israeli President Shimon Peres on January 30, during a joint press conference with Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair, said that there was an opportunity to make "historic decisions, not political ones" on a two-state solution.

He went on to say, "we are facing the most crucial time since the establishment of the new Middle East in 1948"; in other words, since what the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe called an "ethnic cleaning" of the Arabs of Palestine and the creation of Israel.

Peres said he was "convinced" that Abbas was "serious" about making peace with Israel. However, "historic decisions" are made by historic leaders such a person has been missing from Israeli politics since the assassination of late former premier Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Abbas' more than two-decade-long commitment to peace has met with opposition among his own people. He is defying his own Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) constituency, as well as his Hamas-led non-PLO political rivals. The latter opposed his decision to resume bilateral negotiations with Israel, and has overwhelmingly rejected the leaked components of Kerry's "framework agreement".

"Abbas is perhaps the last Palestinian leader today with some measure of faith in the diplomatic process," Elhanan Miller, wrote in The Times of Israel on Monday. Yet Palestinian "pressure" is mounting on him even from members of his own Fatah party and "his negotiating team crumbled" when negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh resigned in November last year, according to the article.

In an interview recorded especially for the conference of Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies in the previous week, Abbas "indicated he may not be able to withstand the pressure much longer", Miller wrote.

"Abbas is in an unenviable position these days. As negotiations with Israel enter the final third of their nine-month time frame," the Palestinian president stands "cornered" between a Palestinian rejection "and an Israeli leadership bent on depicting him as an uncompromising extremist", according to Miller, who quoted the Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz describing Abbas in the previous week as "the foremost purveyor of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli venom".

The Israeli "political" demonization of Abbas led Jamie Stern-Weiner, of the New Left Project to write that "Abbas will get a bullet in his head!" Jamie was not taking things too far in view of Kerry's warning, reported by Palestinian Authority (PA) officials, that Abbas could face the fate of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Israel's chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, stated on last January 25 that Abbas' positions are "unacceptable to us" and threatened that the Palestinians would "pay the price" if he sticks to them.

"This is a clear threat to Abbas in person and it must be taken seriously," the PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told reporters soon after. "We will distribute Livni's statements to all foreign ministers and the international community. We can't remain silent towards these threats," he added.

The Israeli demonization was not confined to Abbas; it also hit out at Kerry as "hurtful", "unfair", "intolerable", "obsessive" and "messianic", adding that he expects Israel "to negotiate with a gun to its head". US National Security Adviser Susan Rice Tweeted in response, according to Haaretz on February 5, that "Israeli insulters have crossed the red line of diplomatic etiquette!"

Sweeping concessions
Abbas' demonization was the reward from Israel for the sweeping concessions he had already made to make the resumed negotiations a success, risking a growing consensus at home that Abbas has backtracked on his own previously proclaimed precondition for the resumption of bilateral negotiations with Israel, namely freezing the accelerating expansion of the illegal Israeli Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, which Israel militarily occupied in 1967, at least temporarily during the resumed negotiations.

According to Tzvi Ben-Gedalyahu, writing in The Jewish Press on Monday, Abbas "has essentially backtracked on all his redlines, except for heeding Israel's insistence on recognizing it as a "Jewish state", which is a new Israeli unilaterally demanded precondition that even the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, deemed "unacceptable" on Sunday. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel.

In an interview with The New York Times the same day, Abbas had reiterated his repeated pledge not to allow a third Intifada, or uprising: "In my life, and if I have any more life in the future, I will never return to the armed struggle," he said, thus voluntarily depriving himself from a successfully tested source of a negotiating power and a legitimate instrument of resisting foreign military occupation ordained by the international law and the UN charter.

In the same interview, he yielded to the Israeli precondition of "demilitarizing" any future state of Palestine, thus compromising the sovereignty of such a state beforehand. Ignoring the fact that Israel is a nuclear power, a state of weapons of mass destruction, a regional military superpower and the world's forth military exporter, he asked: "Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?"

Further compromising the sovereignty of any future state of Palestine, Abbas, according to the Times interview, has proposed to US Secretary Kerry that an American-led NATO force, not a UN force, patrol a future Palestinian state "indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem". He seemed insensitive to the fact that his people would see such a force with such a mandate as merely the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) operating under the NATO flag and in its uniforms.

Abbas even agreed that the IOF "could remain in the West Bank for up to five years" - and not three as he had recently stated - provided that "Jewish settlements" are "phased out of the new Palestinian state along a similar timetable".

Not all "Jewish settlements", however. Despite being well aware of international law, which prohibits the transfer of people by an occupying power like Israel from or to the occupied territories, Abbas nonetheless had early enough accepted the principle of proportional land swapping whereby the major colonial settlements, mainly within Greater Jerusalem borders - which are home to some 80% of more than half a million illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank - would be annexed to Israel. This concession is tantamount to accepting the division of the West Bank between its Palestinian citizens and its illegal settlers.

Yet, what Abbas had described as "historic", "very difficult", "courageous" and "painful" concessions Palestinians had already made dates back very much earlier, when the Palestine National Council adopted in 1988 the Declaration of Independence, which was based on the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution N. 181 (II) of November 29, 1947. Then, "we agreed to establish the State of Palestine on only 22% of the territory of historical Palestine - on all the Palestinian Territory occupied by Israel in 1967," he told the UNGA in September 2011.

Accordingly, Abbas repeatedly voices his commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which stipules an "agreed upon" solution of the "problem" of the 1948 Palestinian refugees. Israel is on record that the return of these refugees to their homes according to the UNGA resolution No 194 (III) of December 11, 1948 is a non-negotiable redline, thus rendering any such "agreed upon" solution a mission impossible. Abbas concession to such a solution is in fact compromising the inalienable rights of more than half of the Palestinian population.

On September 29, 2012, Abbas "once again" repeated "our warning" to the UNGA: "The window of opportunity is narrowing and time is quickly running out. The rope of patience is shortening and hope is withering."

Out of conviction, not out of options
Abbas is making concessions that are unacceptable to his people out of his deep conviction to peace and unwavering commitment to peaceful negotiations - not because he is out of options.

One of his options was reported in an interview with The New York Times on Sunday, when Abbas said that he had been "resisting pressure" from the Palestinian street and leadership to join the United Nations agencies for which his staff "had presented 63 applications ready for his signature".

In 2012, the UNGA recognized Palestine as an observer non-member state; reapplying for the recognition of Palestine as a member state is another option postponed by Abbas to give the resumed negotiations with Israel a chance.

Reconciliation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a third option that Abbas has been maneuvering not to make since 2005 in order not to alienate Israel and the US away from peace talks because they condemn it as a terrorist organization.

Suspension of the security coordination with Israel is also a possible option, which his predecessor Arafat used to test now and then.

Looking for other players to join the US in co-sponsoring the peace talks with Israel is an option that Abbas made clear in his latest visit to Moscow. "We would like other parties, such as Russia, the European Union, China and UN, to play an influential role in these talks," the Voice of Russia quoted him as saying on last January 24.

Israel's DEBKAfile in an exclusive report on January 24 considered his Moscow visit an "exit from the Kerry peace initiative", labeling it a "diplomatic Intifada" and a "defection" that caught Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "unprepared".

Abbas' representative Jibril al-Rjoub on January 27 was in the Iranian capital Tehran for the first time in many years. "Our openness to Iran is a Palestinian interest and part of our strategy to open to the whole world," al-Rjoub said. Three days later the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi daily reported that Abbas would be invited to visit Iran soon with the aim of "rehabilitating" the bilateral ties. The Central Committee of Fatah, which Abbas leads, on February 3 said that al-Rjoub's Tehran visit "comes in line with maintaining international relations in favor of the high interests of our people and the Palestinian cause".

Opening up to erstwhile "hostile" nations like Iran and Syria is more likely a tactical maneuvering than a strategic shift by Abbas, meant to send the message that all Abbas' options are open.

However, his strategic option would undeniably be to honor his previous repeated threats of resignation, to leave the Israeli Occupation Forces to fend for themselves face to face with the Palestinian people whose status quo is no more sustainable.

Speaking in Munich, Kerry last Saturday conveyed the message bluntly: "Today's status quo, absolutely to a certainty, I promise you 100%, cannot be maintained ... It is not sustainable." Last November, Kerry warned that Israel would face a Palestinian "third Intifada" if his sponsored talks see no breakthrough.

The loss of Abbas through resignation or other ends would end Kerry's peace mission and make his predictions a reality.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. [email protected]

(Copyright 2013 Nicola Nasser)

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