Back to Negotiations: Our Sisyphus Dilemma

George Mitchell boarded his jet home to the Land of the Free yesterday all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The first round of proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians were "serious and wide-ranging" he said, with State Department Spokesperson Philip Crowley adding that both sides had "taken steps to create an atmosphere conducive to successful talks."

Anyone mildly versed in the complexities of this conflict and the terminology used will immediately understand what these "steps" are. For the Palestinians, it is the promise that President Mahmoud Abbas will do his utmost to stop "incitement" among the Palestinians against Israel. This can include anything from discussion of Al Nakba (the catastrophe of 1948) in schoolbooks to naming streets after Palestinian freedom fighters. It also includes PA officials (namely Salam Fayyad) who dare to join their people in popular non-violent resistance against Israel’s occupation measures such as the wall, confiscation of land or the uprooting of trees. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even set up a mechanism for monitoring Palestinian incitement, which will soon begin to publish periodic reports. So, if you think of it, this is a mighty tall order for Abbas to fill, especially since just about anything Palestinian can be misconstrued as "incitement."

As for the Israelis, their "step" was an announcement so ridiculous it is hard to believe anyone swallowed it even half whole, much less the Americans. "Israel has pledged not to build in Ramat Shlomo for two years" read a morning headline. Now isn’t that something for which to break open the bubbly? For those of you unfamiliar with the now famous east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo, here is a quick recap of recent events. Ramat Shlomo, already deemed illegal under international law given that it is built on occupied Palestinian land in Jerusalem made headlines a few months ago when an announcement to expand it clashed with the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden. The announcement was especially embarrassing for the Israelis with the US’s increasing push for a settlement freeze. Anyway, the fiasco caused some tension between the allies, which was eventually allayed and before everyone knew it, we were back to business as usual in the US-Israel love affair. Yesterday’s announcement is the best evidence of this. How Israel’s announcement that the 1,600 housing units planned for Ramat Shlomo would be postponed for two years is an achievement is beyond me. After all, Netanyahu himself said after the Biden affair that the houses, even if constructed on schedule, would not go up for at least two years.

So, why has this been hailed as progress? First of all, a postponement is not a cancellation nor is it a pledge to halt settlement construction in east Jerusalem. It just means that sooner or later, the settlements would be expanded even it that means in a few years. But Israel will not commit even to that. On this same morning, another headline appeared on Haaretz: "Peace Now: Construction for largest East Jerusalem settlement has begun."

According to the Israeli peace group, construction of 14 new settlement units has started in the heart of Ras Al Amoud, a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem. The plan calls for 104 new units in the settlement that already houses 50 Jewish families. This cannot be part of Israel’s "positive step" in the talks, can it?

Hence, back to the fundamental question on everyone’s mind. If the proximity talks are doomed from the get-go, then why participate in them in the first place? The only possible outcome, say many Palestinians, is further frustration and loss of land on our part and more settlement building for Israel. Critics also say that Palestinians have tried negotiating with Israel –” both directly and indirectly –” with no positive results, so what could possibly be new now? On the contrary, with an Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu, no Palestinian really believes peace can be achieved. So, why?

Perhaps because there is a lack of any better option, or at least that is the justification. It is a well known fact that the Palestinians are the weaker party in this equation. While it is true that we are partly to blame for this wretched fate (does Oslo ring a bell?), the fact remains that we are in one of those situations where we’re "damned if we do and damned if we don’t." Since that is the case, proponents of returning to the talks say that at least this American administration is trying to be more sensitive to Palestinian needs. This may be true but as one Palestinian intellectual put it, "Obama may have good intentions but he lacks the teeth."

Perhaps this is why President Abbas called on his US counterpart to speed up the process and impose a solution to the conflict. Even Abbas must know these talks –” even if they move to direct negotiations –” will not bear fruit. But at least this way he cannot be blamed for not trying. While this may sound fatalist, it looks as if the Palestinians have really lost hope in the entire negotiating process (and for good reason) and are basically hoping for the best at the hands of the world’s conscience. In this case, it is always good to have the only superpower on your side.

In the meantime, the Palestinians have a very difficult balancing act to maintain. While they delve into the murky waters of these proximity talks, the leadership must also remember the struggle on the ground and the people most directly affected by it. Israel’s occupation is alive and well both in the West Bank and in Gaza much less in east Jerusalem. This morning’s bombing in Gaza shows that Israel does not have the best of intentions. Fighting the occupation should never be a battle any Palestinian shies away from nor should we be bullied into thinking that we should accommodate it any more than we already have. We cannot do much about the balance of powers in the world today but even now, even under this kind of pressure, we still have the power to define ourselves with dignity.