Israel crisis: Taking cue from US anger, Mahmoud Abbas digs in heels

Emboldened by the Israel crisis with the US over East Jerusalem building plans, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is again insisting on 'a complete cessation of settlement activities' before renewed negotiations.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds a joint news conference with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (not pictured) after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah Wednesday.

With Israel-US ties in crisis and tensions subsiding after the worst riots in Jerusalem in years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dug in his heels on peace talks on Wednesday.

Sharing US anger over the announcement of a 1,600 home building project in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden's visit last week, Abbas retreated to a prerequisite that he dropped just a week ago in order to give a chance to a US initiative for indirect negotiations.

"Israel must implement … a complete cessation of settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jersualem to go to negotiations,'' he told reporters in a joint-appearance with the president of Brazil, according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

In the zero-sum maneuvering to return to the peace table, the blunt language and angry messages from US officials over Israeli building in the sections of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians as the capital of a future state has proven a momentary boon to Mr. Abbas.

"The Palestinian leadership probably feels they are on the moral high ground right now," said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman and political commentator in Ramallah.

Abbas on shaky ground

But without any momentum on negotiations, the Palestinian Authority president is on shaky ground. The clashes around Jerusalem on Tuesday -- after his main Palestinian rival Hamas called for a "day of rage" -- demonstrated Palestinian frustration with the inability to stop the expansion of Israel's presence in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, say observers. A diplomatic vacuum leaves more room for tempers to heat up.

Despite speculation about the outbreak of a new Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, experts say the time isn't ripe. Beyond Jerusalem's borders, clashes erupted in a handful of West Bank locations and did not last long.

A revival of economic activity over the last year in West Bank cities has soured many Palestinians on a new period of instability. Moreover, unrest could undermine reforms in the Palestinian government and security forces while playing into the hands of Hamas.

And yet, the PA can't afford to ignore disappointment of Palestinians at the continuing impasse.

"The Palestinian Authority is trying to keep the situation as calm as possible, preferring to get support from the international community. But under heavy public pressure, they have to take measures," says Nashat Aqtash, a communications professor at Bir Zeit University. "It’s a complicated situation where you would like to improve economic situation, and to express anger. How can you get international support if you express anger, and how can you stay silent?''

Worst riots in years

The clashes on Tuesday were stoked in part by Hamas, which called from Gaza for West Bank Palestinians to embark on a new uprising and to end security cooperation with the Israeli army.

However, the day of fighting will have little effect on the PA or Hamas. With Paletinian police in control of daily security in Palestinian towns and the Israeli army sitting outside of population centers, Palestinians have no physical target for their frustration, says Jaimil Rabah, a pollster.

The controversy over Israeli building in East Jerusalem further erodes Palestinian confidence that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu plans to make concessions for peace. That skepticism is the reason why Abbas would only agree to indirect talks in the first place.

Despite tough talk from the US about Israel's need to demonstrate its commitment to the peace process, Palestinians still believe that the US will be biased in favor of Israel in the talks, Mr. Rabah said. Only a US punishment of its ally could reverse that perception, he said.

"There is no expectation for concrete or visible steps to discipline Israel. I don't think the Palestinian position toward the US will change,'' Rabah said. "What we're seeing is a gradual downward distrust in the peace process and the ability of Abbas to achieve something.''

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

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