Mahmoud Abbas gives Israel a week to halt settlement expansion. Does he mean it this time?
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas backed down again on his threat to quit peace talks over Israeli settlement expansion, this time pending consultation with the Arab League Oct. 4.
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In recent days, diplomats have been looking for a compromise position – a sort of "non-freeze freeze" that would allow Palestinian negotiators to save face while not unduly alarming Israel's settler movement.Skip to next paragraph
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Abbas's support slipping among Palestinians
The process so far has laid bare Abbas's sliding standing within the Palestinian elite. Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, has staunchly opposed the talks and promised to continue carrying out what it terms "resistance" to Israel's occupation of the West Bank. A boat carrying Jewish peace activists was stopped by Israel today from breaching the blockade of Gaza, which the Israeli military says is necessary to prevent arms shipments to Hamas.
But more secular-minded Palestinians are also growing impatient with Abbas, who is frequently described in Ramallah as more concerned with his standing in the US than among his own people.
In late August, when a few dozen left-leaning Palestinian politicians tried to hold a conference opposing a return to talks at the Protestant Club in Ramallah, dozens of young men pushed their way into the hall and forcibly broke up the meeting. Organizers alleged there were plain-clothes members of the Palestinian Authority security forces among them, though that's a charge Abbas later denied.
Settlements vs. right of return
While there's still a reasonable chance that the talks will be saved – particularly since President Obama and Abbas have already staked so much of their own prestige on the process – the chances of a breakthrough within Obama's goal of a year that could lead to a durable peace deal and a Palestinian state appear slim.
That's partially because the fight over a settlement freeze is a proxy for the larger issue of what's called the Palestinian right of return. There are roughly 1 million Palestinian refugees living outside of historic Palestine, and many Palestinian leaders from across the political spectrum continue to hold out hope that they'll be allowed to return to an eventual Palestinian state.
An influx of Palestinians, which would tip the demographic balance sharply, is deeply alarming to most Israelis. Ongoing settlement expansion is seen by most Palestinians as an effort by Israel to create "facts on the ground" that, in effect, are expanding Jewish sovereignty and reducing the size of an eventual independent Palestine, making the question of external refugees thornier still.
"Without requiring Palestinian refugees to return, negotiations are worthless," the popular Fatah political activist Marwan Barghouti, a rival of Abbas' currently serving consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison, told Al-Hayyat newspaper. "If the US continues to favor Israel without pressuring it to end the occupation and return to 1967 borders, peace efforts will fail."
The reference to "1967 borders" would include East Jerusalem and all of the West Bank, both of which were seized by Israel in 1967's Six-Day War. Mainstream political opinion in Israel is that East Jerusalem is now part of the Jewish state's "eternal capital" and is not up for negotiation. Most Israeli politicians also expect that any final settlement will allow for carving out territory from the West Bank, allowing Israel to retain most of the large settlement blocs.