The so-called ‘proximity talks' between the Palestinians and the Israelis have begun at a time when most observers see only a meagre possibility for this most recent American diplomatic push to achieve a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Obama administration believes a resumption of negotiations between the two parties is a vital national security interest of the US. This has given rise to speculation that the administration may be determined to find a solution even if it is imposed by the international community.
Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas, like most Arab leaders and members of the public, does not believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is ready for peace with conditions acceptable to the Palestinians, but looks at these negotiations as a chance to test US resolve.
The Israelis, since the Madrid Conference of November 1991, have refused to negotiate with the Arabs as a group, preferring to negotiate with Arab countries individually.
When the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) — responding to Israeli colonial policy in the West Bank and especially in occupied east Jerusalem — had resolved that direct negotiations should cease, almost everybody in the Arab world supported the decision.
The main questions that I posed in the most recent meeting of the PLO Executive Committee, were: Since the direct negotiations ended many months ago, have we not in fact been participating in indirect negotiations? The numerous visits of George Mitchell to the region, as well as those of other high-ranking US officials, all of whom aim to bring together the viewpoints of the Palestinians and the Israelis, are these not part of indirect negotiations? Are indirect negotiations not less harmful than direct negotiations, which have enabled Israel (given its military, economic and technological superiority) to put the Palestinians at a disadvantage, while indirect negotiations with the involvement of the US, due to the fact that Obama is in favour of the two-state solution, is more in our interest? Besides, we have now an important new development, namely; a four-month deadline, to test the seriousness of the Israeli government before we take a decisive stand vis-à-vis negotiations. Is it that difficult to have patience for four additional months after years of negotiations since the Oslo Accords? Moreover, is it not a fact that if we do not participate in the proposed proximity talks, we shall lose a lot, perhaps whatever we have achieved in forcing Israel into a corner after its savage aggression against the Gaza Strip and the Goldstone Report, which alleged Israeli war crimes? Lastly, isn't the "yes" to negotiations taken for granted, given the international and Arab pressure calling for this "yes" and warning against any kind of "no"?
However, the Palestinians should emphasise that this "yes" to the negotiations must be coupled with an effort shared by all PLO factions — as well as those working outside its umbrella, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad — to act according to a ‘people's peaceful resistance programme' until the end of the occupation and the rise of the state, regardless of whether the negotiations carry on or come to a halt.
During this four-month-period, I called for concentration on what Abbas had said in our meeting. He had emphasised the following conditions: (1) Any Israeli attempt to divert attention away from the central issues is unacceptable; (2) Negotiations should start with the question of "the borders", which is what we want, not on the question of "security", which Israel wants; (3) Efforts should continue to push Israel into a corner by communicating with the world, including Israeli politicians and their public; (4) Escalation of non-violent resistance with the involvement of all factions. To which I added the following points: (5) When Abbas declared his intention not to run in the coming elections, he stated he had "other alternatives that he would take later". Today he is reiterating his refusal for the PNA to become a figurehead. If Israel continues to deal with the PNA as an entity with no political power, the PNA must either attain real power or revise its relationship with the occupiers. (6) The roles of the various PLO factions and institutions, especially Fatah, should be refined. Fatah, until now, has not been very involved in the resistance. (7) I agree with colleagues' statements regarding the necessity of redefining the Palestinian struggle programmes and following up with the new process of both political and legal action.
In conclusion, if indirect negotiations fail, which indeed they're liable to, we still have viable alternatives, the first of which is national reconciliation. There is no alternative to involving all effective powers, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, if we wish to consolidate the people's resistance. We should be very careful with Israel, and aware of its efforts to turn indirect negotiations into direct negotiations in order to blackmail the Palestinian negotiators, as it has done since the Madrid Conference. It is necessary to keep communicating with all Arab countries, as well as the components of the Quartet. These are the ‘direct' questions behind the ‘indirect' negotiations.
Professor As'ad Abdul Rahman is the chairman of the Palestinian Encyclopaedia.