Are Serious Mideast Negotiations Around the Corner?

Palestinians and many others around the world are trying to figure out whether the current US-backed push to restart Mideast talks will lead to serious negotiations or will it be just another act that leads nowhere.

The US peace envoy, George Mitchell, has been making the rounds trying to restart Palestinian-Israeli talks. Mitchell's early obstacle was America's own making. The newly elected president, Barack Obama, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, raised Palestinian expectations by their insistence, soon after taking power, on Israel to totally freeze all settlement activity as part of its obligations to the roadmap. Later Obama reduced his call for a freeze to one for "restricting" activities.

In its latest approach, the US proposed a set of steps including Israeli release of Fateh activists as well as organising indirect talks for three to four months.

To get around the absence of a total freeze, the indirect talks are expected to focus solely on the borders of the Palestinian state. The idea is that if this issue is agreed on, the settlement knot will become irrelevant because settlers left within the borders of the Palestinian state will have to decide whether to live in Palestine or move back to Israel.

One Palestinian demand has not been totally agreed to by the Americans: that the US recognise a Palestinian state if the upcoming talks fail. American refusal stems from the fact that it believes that such a commitment will remove any incentive for Palestinians to be involved in the serious act of give and take that negotiations are supposed to be all about. Palestinians disagree, insisting that after 43 years of illegal occupation and failed implementations of numerous accords, including the Oslo Agreement and the roadmap, the talks are supposed to focus on implementations rather than any more negotiations. Without such commitment, the Palestinians are afraid that Israel will have no incentive to reach an agreement that will require them to give up Palestinian lands.

A possible compromise appears to have been reached in this regard, whereby the Europeans have committed to recognise a unilateral de facto state of Palestine within 18 months.

Another proposed change is that American negotiators be directly involved this time, irrespective of whether the talks are held directly or indirectly. For a long-time Israel has refused to allow US or any other third party to have a seat at the negotiation table.

If the Americans succeed in their present effort, there would be three levels of talks. One strategic, between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Simultaneously, talks are to take place between senior negotiators like Saeb Erekat, the head of the PLO negotiating team, and a similar level Israeli negotiator. A third level would be on practical issues, and include Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad alongside Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak. This last set of talks, which started with Fayyad meeting Barak at the recent Herzilya conference, can prove to be quite interesting in light of Fayyad's plans to build up the infrastructure and institutions of the Palestinian state in the coming 18 months.

While many of the above moves give the impression of some serious, behind-the-scenes accomplishments by Mitchell and his team, it is difficult to see real progress on the ground, in light of the present Israeli government's actions. In the last few weeks alone, the Israeli defence minister recognised a settlement-based university near Nablus, the Mossad reportedly carried out an assassination in Dubai and Netanyahu declared two religious sites located deep in the West Bank as part of Israel's archaeological heritage.

The Israeli Knesset introduced a new law, calling Jews who came from Arab countries to Israel refugees and demanding compensation for them. They are also attempting to ban Palestinian citizens of Israel to remember the Nakba (catastrophe) which is the rememberance of the Palestinian refugee problem. On Jerusalem another hot negotiations topic, Israel is also carrying out a regular process of destruction of Palestinian homes and building of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

These steps give the impression of a state ruled by right-wing hardliners that are not likely to be willing to make the kind of difficult decisions needed to usher in the aspired for independent viable state of Palestine with contiguous borders, or a solution to the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

The next few months will reveal whether we are seeing a major breakthrough or just another mirage.