RAMALLAH - Something is happening with the Middle East conflict, but it is hard to say what. A breakthrough appears to be at hand, though all the parties still seem to be clinging to their traditional positions. The Arab League gave the go-ahead to indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks, and the various Palestinian leadership forums have approved the resumption of talks. Even the usually boisterous Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has toned down his rhetoric, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave an optimistic interview to Israel TV.
But Israel has not publicly agreed to the American and Palestinian request to rescind the settlement construction in Jerusalem approved during US Vice President Joe Biden's recent visit to Israel. On the contrary, Israeli officials, denying the Palestinians' assertion that a secret US-Israel agreement exists, clearly intend to continue building Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem. So what is going on?
For starters, we are again moving into what Henry Kissinger called the realm of "constructive ambiguity." Palestinians have been assured via a message from President Barack Obama, delivered by his special envoy George Mitchell, that the Israelis will not carry out any "provocations" during the coming four months of indirect negotiations. Pressed to clarify, the Palestinians admitted that there is no written promise to this effect.
But, on a recent trip to Israel, White House adviser Dan Shapiro is said to have been reassured that the Israelis will not embarrass their American friends. In exchange, Shapiro handed the ultra-orthodox leader of Israel's Shas party an invitation to the White House. Mitchell gave a similar invitation to Abbas.
Palestinians understand that without pressure little change will take place. They have also clearly understood the folly of violent resistance, and have made a dramatic shift to nonviolent action - with the acceptance (and possibly encouragement) of the international community - in order to maintain pressure on the occupiers.
The PLO's main faction, Fatah, made this shift at their sixth congress, held in Bethlehem last winter after a 20-year hiatus. Senior PLO officials have participated in demonstrations and protest activities, with some being injured and Executive Committee member Abbas Zaki imprisoned for a couple of days. Other senior Fatah officials have been banned from travel outside the West Bank, owing largely to their involvement in nonviolent protests.
In addition to nonviolent activities, Palestinian state-building efforts have been put in high gear. Salam Fayyad, the energetic Western-trained Palestinian prime minister, has implemented a detailed blueprint for declaring a de facto Palestinian state by August 2011.
While state-building is handled by the civilian Palestinian Authority, political efforts are handled by the PLO, whose chairman, Abbas, is the head of Fatah as well as the Palestinian Authority's president. Abbas and his negotiating team, headed by Erekat, have been successful in securing the support of all members of the Arab League.
The PLO has succeeded in obtaining European support for a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood. The only obstacle remaining to Palestinian leaders are the Americans. When Palestinians asked Mitchell for assurances that the US would support such a statehood declaration if talks failed, Mitchell responded that such a commitment would make negotiations pointless.
Instead, the Americans have their own ideas about how to achieve a breakthrough, especially with Israel, which the Obama administration believes is now the major obstacle. To effect change in Israel, the Americans are launching various trial balloons. One is that, if the current process fails, Obama might issue his own plan, which many expect would be a near-carbon copy of the proposal made by Bill Clinton's administration in its last days ten years ago. At the time, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators were quoted as saying that the two sides had never been closer to an agreement.
A US peace plan that is fair and reasonable would certainly have many ordinary Israelis and Palestinians cheering. It could cause some major damage to right-wing Israeli political forces that came to power as a result of eight years of former US president George Bush's so-called war on terror.
Hiding behind that anti-Islamic façade, the Israelis have found it easy to stonewall all reasonable peace efforts, including the 2002 Arab peace plan, according to which Arab states and Muslim-majority countries agreed to normalize relations with Israel if it withdrew from areas occupied in 1967. The plan also gave Israel a role equal to that of the Palestinians in resolving the refugee issue. It called for the "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194."
Yet another US trial balloon has been the suggestion that if all of the above fails, the Americans might suggest that the Arab-Israeli conflict be resolved through the convening of an international conference. Such a conference is in fact listed in the "road map" as part of phase III in the talks.
Until now, Israelis and Palestinians have insisted on various "red lines" that they proclaimed they would never cross. The coming months will show whether these public postures are negotiable, with obvious consequences for both parties and their relationship with the international community, especially the US.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
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