West Bank dispute: Palestinian leader gives peace talks one-week reprieve

One day after Israeli moratorium on settlements expires, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delays his decision on whether to quit the US-backed Middle East peace talks for one week.

By , Staff writer

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    Israeli contractors look at maps as they stand at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Sept. 27.
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The US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were handed a reprieve Monday when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not decide for one week whether to quit the talks in protest over Israel’s resumption of settlement construction.

With the sword hanging over the talks just relaunched by President Obama this month lowered at least temporarily, US officials starting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to press both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the coming days to try to reach a compromise – so far elusive – to allow the talks to continue.

Special Mideast envoy George Mitchell was to leave Monday evening for several days of meetings in the region aimed at keeping the talks alive.

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Determining the outcome of American mediation will be whether the two sides are close enough for any proposed compromise to satisfy both sides, some Mideast experts say.

“The Americans have a long history – if they think the two sides are close enough – of coming up with suggestions for bridging proposals,” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The question is, do the Americans see this as that kind of situation,” he adds, “because it’s clearly the domestic situations on the two sides that will drive this.”

One key to the talks’ prospects will be other Arab countries, whose leaders Mr. Abbas said he will consult before an Arab League meeting on Oct. 4. Arab League leaders were instrumental in convincing Abbas to return to direct talks that are not well-viewed by many Palestinians. Now he will gauge how much more political cover the Arabs have to offer for any decision to continue talking despite Israel’s return to settlement construction.

On Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allowed a moratorium on settlement construction to expire, rejecting calls from Mr. Obama and other international leaders that the 10-month partial building freeze be extended to allow the nascent talks to continue.

Arab countries are likely to encourage Abbas to stick with the talks – though more to please the US than out of any keen interest in seeing the peace talks succeed, some regional experts say.

“It seems Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia will continue to play the role of pressuring Abbas to continue with the US-sponsored talks – not because these talks will bring anything to the Palestinians … or because they will result in a future Palestinian state,” says Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. “But they will do it because these states are beholden to the United States.”

Abbas will ultimately agree to stick with the talks, Mr. Shehata says, because his “sources of legitimacy” are external – the US, the Arab League, other foreign capitals such as Paris where Abbas was Monday – rather than the Palestinian people.

At the same time, abandoning the talks now would constitute a political problem for Abbas, Shehata adds, because it would be tantamount to admitting that his arch rivals in Hamas were right, that nothing is to be gained by engaging in dialogue with the Israelis.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to disregard Obama – who made a very public appeal before the UN last week for continuation of the moratorium – suggests how much domestic political constraints are determining the talks’ fate, some regional experts say.

The Washington Institute’s Mr. Clawson says all eyes between now and next Monday will be on the Americans for what “face-saving measures” they might offer the Palestinians for going forward despite Abbas’s threat to walk. “I don’t know that it is going to be good enough to turn to the kinds of confidence-building measure the Israelis have been talking about,” he adds, “like prisoner exchanges.”

Clawson says the Obama administration has some capable diplomats who have been able to convince the Israelis and Palestinians to do things in the past – like Dennis Ross, an Obama adviser on the National Security Council, who helped convince the two sides to attend the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. But he says the domestic politics affecting each leader are even more problematic now.

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