Introduction: Abbas between international expectations and Palestinian opinion
As the Obama administration renews its bid to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations through the deployment of Secretary of State John Kerry to the region, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas finds himself caught between two opposing forces. On the one hand he faces international pressure to renew talks, which have been suspended since September 2010, and on the other, domestic suspicion towards the prospect of resuming negotiations with Israel. A recent poll conducted in the Palestinian territories showed a sharp decline in support for negotiations with Israel in the West Bank: from 59% in May 2011 to just 43% in late 2012.
The Palestinians have stated that in order for negotiations to restart, Israel must freeze building in the settlements, accept that a final deal will be based on the 1967 lines, and release Palestinian prisoners detained before the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. At the same time, Palestinian negotiators have insisted that these demands are not preconditions but merely the implementation of previously signed agreements and essential displays of good faith on the part of Israel.
Renewed negotiations with Israel in the absence of a clear conceptual framework, and even a timetable, are increasingly regarded by the Palestinian public as a waste of time. A short video produced in March by the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department ends with that sense of impatience, calling previous negotiation rounds “camouflage for colonisation and segregation.”
While much attention has been given to the Israeli side in analysing the stagnation in peace talks, the Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas faces formidable resistance in public opinion, from within his own Fatah party and from the ranks of the Hamas opposition in Gaza. Deep seated Palestinian suspicion towards the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, coupled with high sensitivity to domestic opposition, has forced Abbas to repeatedly escalate demands before embarking on a new round of talks, for which he has shown little interest, and whose failure could be detrimental to his precarious leadership.
Opposition to negotiations within Fatah
On April 15, Marwan Barghouti, a senior Fatah leader and the only prospective heir to Mahmoud Abbas from within his party, spoke to Sky News Arabia from the Israeli prison where he is serving five life sentences for involvement in terrorist activities during the Second Intifada in 2001-2002.
Barghouti advised the Palestinian leadership not to resume talks with Israel and instead seek full state membership in the UN and pursue Israel legally in international fora. “I would advise the Palestinian leadership not to repeat this experience, because the results will be no different,” Barghouti said. “The Israeli government is opposed to peace and is a government of occupation, settlement and extremism.”
Negotiations could not resume, Barghouti added, before Israel explicitly committed to withdrawing to the 1967 lines, allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homes within Israel, and releasing “all prisoners and detainees.” Meanwhile, the Palestinians must boycott Israel “politically, economically and security-wise.”
Viewing international sanctions towards Israel as an essential precursor to peace negotiations was shared by Fatah official Tayyeb Abdul Rahim, secretary general of the Palestinian presidency. Speaking to families of Palestinian prisoners on March 16, Abdul Rahim said that negotiations could not resume before “the prisoners are released; especially pre-Oslo prisoners, the sick, children and women.”
This sentiment is widely felt in editorials and in popular demonstration across the West Bank. While US President Barack Obama was speaking to his Palestinian counterpart in Ramallah, protesters outside – by no means Hamas affiliates – were chanting: “No way to peaceful [resistance], only bullets and missiles.”
The resignation this month of politically independent and pro-Western Prime Minster Salam Fayyad threatens a further blow to the path of progress through bilateral cooperation and dialogue with Israel, having strengthened Fatah officials who view the peace negotiations with deep suspicion.
Opposition to negotiations from Hamas
Hamas, which has been engaged in on-off reconciliation talks with Abbas since the Islamic movement’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, adamantly opposes negotiations between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. A renewed round of negotiations with Israel will likely terminate reconciliation efforts, which last year produced an agreement in principle for a Palestinian unity government led by Abbas, tasked with preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections. While Abbas’ policy making is not directly influenced by Hamas reasoning, the Islamic movement does control over one third of the Palestinian body politic and expresses the sentiment of Palestinian conservatives across the political spectrum.
Following John Kerry’s visit to Israel on April 12, Hamas deputy political chief Moussa Abu-Marzouq wrote on his Facebook page that “despite the optimism expressed by [Kerry], his visit was not a success.” At a rally for Palestinian prisoners at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University on April 16, Abu-Marzouq explained that Kerry’s mission “has failed before it even began.” He told the crowd that all that Kerry wants is to sell Palestinians more “illusions” about tackling core issues that were not resolved in nearly two decades of negotiations.
Hamas has also framed Palestinian negotiations with Israel and Palestinian reconciliation efforts as mutually exclusive. On April 18, a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu-Zuhri, accused the United States of forcing Fatah to freeze reconciliation talks with Hamas for three months. An agreement to that effect, Abu-Zuhri charged, was recently signed in Paris between Kerry and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Abu-Zuhri’s allegations were adamantly denied by Erekat.
In the absence of negotiations, Mahmoud Abbas has maintained two alternative modes of operation.
He has repeatedly denounced the Palestinian use of terrorism against Israelis in the Second Intifada (2000-2003) as both ineffective and immoral, but continues to advocate “popular resistance” (Muqawama Shaabiyah), more similar to the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993). This mode of “resistance” includes mass demonstrations; marches toward Israeli road blocks in the West Bank; the erection of Palestinian outposts to mirror Israeli settlements; boycotting Israeli products; and even stone throwing and limited clashes with the IDF.
The second track pursued by the PA is diplomatic and legal. It began with the failed bid for statehood at the UN Security Council in September 2011 and continued with the achievement of “non-member observer state” status at the UN General Assembly in November 2012. This new international standing allows ‘Palestine’ to seek membership of international organisations, invite the International Criminal Court to extend jurisdiction over it, and to positions itself in international forums as “a state under occupation“.
Although an official law suit has not yet been filed by the PA against Israel – with the Palestinians apparently suspending such measures temporarily at the request of John Kerry – more limited measures have already been taken. On April 10, PLO official Hanan Ashrawi appealed in a letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to “hold Israel to account and penalise it” for the recent deaths of two Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, which Ashrawi claimed were a result of “intentional neglect”. In a similar vein, Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqe announced that the PA was preparing to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the death of prisoner Arafat Jaradat in February.
Encouraged by the overwhelming international support for Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly, the PA leadership continues to prefer the threat of international legal action as a means of pressuring Israel, rather than a return to negotiations.
Considering the significant domestic pressure on Abbas to forgo a new round of negotiations with Israel – both from within the Fatah party and from the Hamas opposition in Gaza – the Palestinian President currently appears unwilling to stake his limited public clout on talks, the outcome of which he cannot predict. While Abbas will certainly need assurances from Israel and the US to re-enter talks, he must also face a united international community that both stresses the necessity of re-engaging in bilateral talks with Israel and firmly discourages unilateral and punitive alternatives on the part of the PA.
Elhanan Miller is the Arab Affairs correspondent for the Times of Israel.