No explanation given: Palestinian PM skips Netanyahu meeting

Looking ahead, Palestinian leaders face few appealing options for advancing their agenda, which has been sidelined by Iran and the US elections.

Courtesy of Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) shakes hands with Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat during their meeting in Jerusalem on April 17. A Palestinian delegation met Netanyahu on Tuesday, delivering a letter from PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Expectations of the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in nearly two years were dashed yesterday when Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was a no-show at the Jerusalem residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latest sign of dysfunction in public diplomacy between the sides.

What did happen at Mr. Netanyahu’s residence is that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat delivered a letter from PA President Mahmoud Abbas. An Israeli response is expected in the coming weeks.

Analysts see the correspondence as an effort by Mr. Abbas to tread water in the face of a handful of less attractive alternatives to the current impasse, such as backing a third intifada or dissolving the PA – a move that would remove what many Palestinians see as a façade for Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“He’s groping in the dark… He is trying to give the impression that he’s doing something,” says Ofer Salzburg. “When he looks at his options, they see something that either seems not to be feasible, or they come at such a high price that they are intolerable.”

Palestinian agenda on the world's back burner

The Palestinian agenda has been relegated to the back burner in the six months since the Palestinians failed in an appeal for membership to the United Nations Security Council, as attention turned to rising tensions between Israel and Iran, escalating fighting in Syria, and the 2012 US presidential race.

In comparison, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s domestic political standing appears strong because of his activity on Iran and because no opposition politicians have gained traction.

Rumors of the Fayyad-Netanyahu meeting raised expectations for the highest-level talks in 20 months, but the Israelis said that Mr. Fayyad had never confirmed his participation even though Palestinian officials had said he might come. There was no immediate comment from the Palestinians and analysts point out that Fayyad has in the past stayed out of the negotiations, so such a meeting would have been a first.

Seeking a vote at the UN General Assembly on upgrading the Palestinian’s status at the international body seems like the best course of action to return to the world stage because it would once again ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Israel.

But it would also reignite friction with President Obama, whose administration quashed last year’s appeal by Abbas for membership status in the Security Council. It might also prompt Israel to freeze tax revenues it transfers to the Palestinian Authority, a punishment that would break the back of the PA’s already strained budget.

Abbas could also try to push forward talks to reconcile the internal Palestinian rift with Hamas. But that would also risk sanctions from Israel, and the president is likely to face internal opposition from colleagues within his Fatah party who don’t want to share power with the Islamist rulers of Gaza.

More radical options

Then, there are more radical options for pressuring Israel: The Palestinian leadership could throw its weight behind a popular uprising in the West Bank. Alternatively, it could elect to dissolve itself, thereby shifting the costly burden of managing the daily affairs of millions of Palestinians back to the Israeli government.

“The only pressure that Abbas can put on Israel is to dissolve the PA, and Israel will have responsibility,” says Nashat Aqtash, a Palestinian communications professor at Bir Zeit University, outside Ramallah.

But both moves would risk opening up a power vacuum that could be exploited by Hamas.

Though the recent letter appears as a little more than a restatement of old Palestinian positions – including preconditions for the restart of peace negotiations – the Israeli message in response could segue into a low-level diplomatic dialogue like the talks held between the sides in Amman, Jordan, earlier this year.

Observers say that Abbas may be looking ahead to the results of the US election. If Mr. Obama is reelected, some say Abbas believes that the second Obama term might bring with it more aggressive posture toward Israel to make peace concessions.

“I think the US is trying to convince him that the Obama in his second term will be more active at advancing their cause,” says a former Israeli diplomat. “Any of those other routes makes it difficult for the US to be in his corner.”

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