During the preparations for the historic [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations due to commence today, Israeli Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called for the damnation of Mahmoud Abbas, so as to relieve the Israelis of him. And in Gaza, a group of Hamas imams have prayed that the call of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef be answered, and that Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiating team be killed. Despite these hateful prayers, the tense beginning that has preceded the negotiators’ trip, and the clear frustration on the faces of the Palestinian team, the reality is we are witnessing the first significant negotiations in ten years. In terms of ideas, they are the most important negotiations in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In terms of sponsorship, the negotiations are the most promising yet, as they will be hosted by President Obama who is respected by all parties, including his Arab rivals. In terms of international support, they will be held in an atmosphere that is conducive to Palestinian support, especially on the part of the Europeans and the Russians who intervened via the International Quartet, through a rare consensus.
But, unfortunately, the Arab side is also very unlucky. Israeli negotiator Benjamin Netanyahu is the worst partner among the current set of Israeli politicians who could sit at a table opposite Mahmoud Abbas. In addition to being against the idea of returning the occupied territories and establishing a Palestinian state, Netanyahu is also the Prime Minister of a fragile coalition that consists of rival Israeli political groups; a coalition whose ministers are even more right-wing than Netanyahu himself.
In spite of all this, there are a number of key factors that might push the negotiations forward, including Obama’s desire to achieve a victory in this crucial issue. Furthermore, there is the presence of Mahmoud Abbas, as a leader who knows that he faces a golden opportunity for his people which he must not pass up. Finally, there is also the legacy of numerous negotiations that the Palestinians have gone through, with patience and excellence unknown to many, and which has forced the Israelis into an advanced stage of talks which are in accordance with the Palestinian and Arab demands.
I know that being optimistic about the forthcoming negotiations would be a mistake and a political miscalculation because the obstacles are countless. For instance, the Arab and Iranian rejectionist front would do all that is in its power to derail these negotiations including launching missiles, abducting soldiers and bombing embassies, just like they did during the Camp David and Taba negotiations. They turned Jerusalem into a pool of blood, thus forcing Yasser Arafat to stop and reconsider before ultimately refusing the exceptional offer of a Palestinian state.
Optimism is also an error because there are fierce opponents for peace on the Israeli side; opponents who do not hesitate to commit crimes against Palestinian citizens in the West Bank and perhaps even against their own politicians, as was the case when they assassinated former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for engaging in negotiations. Thus we are approaching the negotiations walking on a tight rope, where it is much easier to fall down than maintain balance.
Here the challenge falls on the shoulders of the negotiators, who require the support and protection of their Arab supporters, on both Arab and US fronts, in order to exert more pressure to meet the demand of creating a Palestinian state on 100 percent of the Palestinian territories occupied in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Not to mention the resettlement of the Palestinian refuges and the establishment of a capital in East Jerusalem.
These negotiations might not be successful, as many have predicted including President Mahmoud Abbas himself. But it won’t hurt the Arabs to waste a year in another round of negotiations. They have wasted the bulk of the past 40 years, receiving reassurances and promises, whereas refugees have remained in their camps and land has continued to be claimed by Jewish settlers every day. The tragedy has grown amidst this state of limbo between war and peace.