The Burden of the PA
By returning to the negotiations under unfavorable conditions, the PA has demonstrated that it has become burden on the Palestinian people and that a new way of dealing with it must be found if the Palestinians wish to progress, says Hani al-Masri on Palestinianwww.masarat.ps.
Less than 24 hours after the Palestinian leadership rejected moves to restart the stalled peace talks with Israel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared (in Amman, after a flying visit to Ramallah) that negotiations were set to resume after all, notes leading Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri on the independent Palestinian website www. masarat.ps.
RAPID RETREAT: Kerry said that Palestinian and Israeli negotiators would meet in Washington in less than a week's time, after the Palestinians had scrapped the three conditions they had initially set out in exchange for (written) American guarantees regarding the reference point for the talks (that they would be conducted on the basis of the 1967 borders, that settlement building would be curtailed, and that Palestinian prisoners would be released). Kerry added that the talks would take six to nine months.
The Palestinian retreat was rapid, unexplained, and disorganized, so much so that Palestinian spokesmen still deny that direct talks would resume. They say that the Washington meetings are only about finalizing the details of the conditions under which the talks may be resumed – as if such important issues as the reference point for the talks and freezing settlement are mere details.
But why did President Mahmoud Abbas agree to resume peace talks (and abandon the Palestinian quest to go to the UN) without securing a national consensus, and despite Israel's rejection of Palestinian conditions? Even the issue of prisoner releases remains in the hands of Israel, which announced that it would only be releasing some of those who have spent more than thirty years in jail. The prisoners would be released in batches, a process that would only begin when the talks enter their second month.
President Abbas agrees to all these conditions because he believes that the peace process is his only option and that negotiations would support the PA and augment its legitimacy. He believes that without peace talks, Palestine could well explode in revolt, and that the PA would then lose its very reason for being. That is why Palestinian negotiators always go back to the table to give away more and more concessions at the expense of the national interests simply for the PA to hold on to power. Power has become an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve national objectives.
Another reason for the Palestinian about-face is that the Obama administration could blame the Palestinians for the failure of Kerry's efforts, which the Palestinian leadership fears could lead to the stoppage of American aid and the imposition of sanctions by the U.S. and Israel – which could lead to the PA's collapse.
The way the Palestinian leadership sees it, holding one or two rounds of talks would be less harmful than refusing to resume talks. The leadership has apparently overlooked the fact that rights cannot be bargained away, including the release of Palestinian prisoners which should never have become a negotiating issue anyway but should have been pursued as part of a strategy designed to secure their release while preserving the cause they were detained for in the first place.
For the umpteenth time, the Palestinian leadership has decided to put its faith in American guarantees, without learning the lessons of past experiences, starting with the  Oslo accords, 34 clauses of which have yet to be implemented, to the  Wye River agreement, to Camp David , to Taba , to the  Roadmap, to the promises made by Bush and Condoleezza Rice, and finally Obama's promises in his first term. There is nothing to suggest that the latest guarantees would be any better than previous ones.
Another major problem is the perception widespread among Arabs and Palestinians that the Americans could in fact pressure the Israelis into adopting a more flexible position, which would facilitate a settlement of the conflict especially as recent events in the Arab world, have on the whole weakened the anti-peace camp to the advantage of more moderate forces. Syria is on the ropes, the Muslim Brotherhood, after their rise to power in Egypt and Tunisia, are on the way down, Hamas is in an unenviable position, Hizbollah is mired in the Syrian morass, and Iran is more interested in defending itself against sanctions and possible attack over its nuclear program. And, the PA, facing a serious financial crisis, is eager to lay its hands on the $4 billion Kerry promised. This is another reason why Abbas agreed to go back to the negotiating table.
In this context, we can understand why, in the absence of formal talks, the alternative has always been secret, 'exploratory,' or 'proximity' talks, or meetings between Palestinian leaders and Israeli officials such as [State President] Shimon Peres, [Chief negotiator] Tzipi Livni, or Knesset members. And of course, there is the security cooperation between the two sides, which has been ongoing under all circumstances.
Had the Palestinian leadership reserved the right to go to the UN in tandem with resuming peace talks, we would have been in a far better position. One of the more egregious errors committed by the Palestinian leadership was to distinguish between settlement activity in Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs on the one hand and settlements in the rest of the occupied territories on the other. This insinuates that the latter is somehow legitimate, a precedent that could be used to justify building new settlements in the future.
The only explanation for the Palestinian leadership's eagerness to resume talks is power. Without negotiations, the PA faces the threat of collapse. The PA is not only an embodiment of Palestinian identity and statehood; it also serves the interests and enhances the influence of certain individuals and classes. The PA has become a burden on the shoulders of the Palestinian people; a new way of dealing with it must be found if the Palestinians wish to progress.
Kerry, a resourceful and energetic politician, seeks to employ the recent regional, Arab, and international changes in order to liquidate the Palestinian cause. Difficult as this course undoubtedly is, it has a reasonable chance of success if Israel responds favorably and appreciates the immense advantages they can reap by going along with Kerry and do not choose to wait for terms that are even more favorable. But it will be the Palestinian people who would be asked to pay the price for Kerry's dreams of becoming a peacemaker and winning the Nobel peace prize. The U.S. will never exert any pressure on Israel, since Israel's value in America's eyes has risen exponentially because of the recent upheavals in the Arab world. Israel has proved that it is a reliable and stable ally of the United States.
There is nothing to guarantee that bilateral negotiations would succeed where Kerry failed in reaching acceptable conditions for resuming the peace process. Without adequate Arab support, and in a climate of international indifference, talks held without a credible point of reference could only be a waste of time. Such talks would grant legitimacy to Israel's actions; the most they could achieve is liquidating the Palestinian cause through a transitional or final settlement.
What makes matters worse is the Palestinian leadership’s growing determination to hold elections in the West Bank without first securing a national consensus [that includes Hamas]. The only reason for holding elections is to endow the (resumed) peace talks – and the agreements that could result - with a cloak of legitimacy. But elections under present circumstances could never provide the Palestinian leadership with the legitimacy it craves. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and maybe other factions and personalities would undoubtedly boycott the elections. In the absence of reconciliation, it would be superfluous to believe that Hamas would allow elections to be held in Gaza – which would only serve to perpetuate the split and make it permanent. Hamas has to be helped out of its current dilemma; it must be encouraged to join the other factions under the umbrella of national unity instead of forcing it to choose other options that would be harmful to all.
A new Palestinian Legislative Council, elected by voters in the West Bank only (even if it had members from Gaza), would not be able to restore the frayed legitimacy of the PA. Similarly, the next President, if he was to be elected only by West Bank voters, would be President of part of the Palestinian people. That is why it would be unwise to hold elections only for the purpose of legitimizing an illegitimate negotiating process. Elections can only become a step forwards if they were part of a general plan for liberation, unity, independence, and return. They could never be free and fair unless an appropriate climate exists that would enable candidates to campaign freely. The idea of holding an electronic ballot under occupation and with the refusal of Hamas is intended merely to mislead.
Palestinian legitimacy comes not only from the ballot box, but also from adherence to Palestinian national objectives, rights, and interests – and from the struggle to uphold these aims, which should be embraced by the vast majority of Palestinians.