Not just difficult, impossible

Compared to the Palestinians, Sisyphus had it easy. It’s true the poor guy never did get the boulder up the hill, but the peak was at least in view. For the Palestinians, the slippery slope of negotiations has yet to get them anywhere close to the top of the hill and thus to independence.

Nevertheless, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must feel a bit like Sisyphus right now. After months of refusing to launch direct talks with Israel until he sees some tangible progress on the ground, he has finally been prodded and pressured to breaking point. Days ago, he, along with the PLO’s Executive Committee, finally buckled, approving the move to direct talks with Israel early next month.

This can’t possibly feel right to him. It doesn’t to every Palestinian out there, if, for no other reason, this move back to the negotiating table with no real bargaining chips in Palestinian hands only reminds everyone of previous, failed attempts. The question, therefore, is why did the Palestinians concede yet again, and who is really to gain from this false sense of progress?

The second answer is pretty clear. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is exactly where he wants to be in this charade, and can have his cake and eat it too. He can claim to want peace and an end to the conflict and pretend to be making "difficult concessions" in the name of a settlement, all the while bringing forth absolutely nothing new. If anything, he has further shaved off the edges of the already truncated offers from previous Israeli leaders, leaving very little room for maneuver for the Palestinians to enter negotiations in good faith.

Netanyahu, who has never shied away from voicing his opinion about the Palestinians, is certainly not mincing his words now. For a man who demands no preconditions for entering direct talks, he seems to have laid down quite a few. Any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Israel’s security trumps all else. And one more thing: the Israeli army must have a presence in the Jordan Valley, along the eastern border of any future Palestinian state, ostensibly as a buffer zone against the smuggling of rockets and weapons.

In other words, Netanyahu is taking no risks at all. On the contrary, his eager acceptance to enter talks is nothing more than another political maneuver to once again be able to blame the Palestinians for being an "obstacle to peace". Netanyahu is fully aware that the negotiating setup as is, will not hold. It is no coincidence that Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even the watered-down Quartet statement on August 21 all left out mention of Israel’s 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, scheduled to end on September 26.

A freeze on settlement growth is one of the basic Palestinian demands for any movement in peace talks. However, not only did Israel play unfairly during the 10 months of its so-called "construction freeze", in terms of finding loophole after loophole for continuing building in settlements, but Netanyahu also made it clear that a renewal of the freeze would be detrimental to his own survival and cause further cracks in his already shaky coalition. In addition, settlements, at least the major blocs, are non-negotiable for Netanyahu, as are those in and around Jerusalem, which Israel conveniently calls "neighborhoods" or "suburbs".

No matter from which angle you look at it, the Palestinians are getting the short end of the stick. And they know it. Just days after accepting to begin direct talks, Abbas sent a letter to the Quartet leaders warning that continued settlement expansion (presumably after the September 26 deadline) would derail negotiations.

"Settlements and peace represent two parallel tracks which can never meet," Abbas wrote. "An Israeli decision to continue settlement construction would mean Israel decided to stop negotiations because talks cannot continue if settlements continue." A day earlier, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority would pull out of talks if settlement activity continues. "If the Israeli government decides, on September 26, to continue to permit the submission of settlement bids, then there will be no talks," he said.

So why start at all? President Abbas knows the Israeli government will not comply with any of the PLO’s negotiating demands, especially after Netanyahu has already outlined Israel’s conditions for a peace deal. Settlements will–and have never ceased to–continue to grow; Israel’s premier already made it clear when he rejected the Quartet’s original statement in March that his government will not accept negotiating terms based on the 1967 borders; and Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the conflict, is to remain united under Israeli rule despite the international community’s lack of recognition of the city’s annexation.

In that case, what do the Palestinians hope to achieve by going back to direct talks? Probably nothing. But unfortunately, Abbas is familiar with what American pressure means and what happens when you do not heed it. America needs to score here, even if on a small scale. US President Barack Obama’s popularity needs a boost, which could easily be given by perceived progress in the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This can’t be done without the parties, however, so the US has pushed hard on Abbas to "just say yes".

There have even been rumors of a possible tightening of funds to the Palestinians if they don’t obey Washington’s rules, which if true is a form of arm-twisting Abbas will find it hard to resist. Unfortunately, the Palestinians have become so dependent on foreign aid, American dollars included, they have grown accustomed to compromising on once strong positions. This is the only credible explanation as to why Abbas resisted pressure to return to direct talks only to fold weeks later even though Israel has, if anything, made the grounds for a final settlement even more impossible for the leadership to accept.

The outcome of these talks seems tragically predictable even before they begin. As long as the perimeters of the negotiations have not changed and only serve Israel’s purposes, the direct talks are doomed to fail, just like all those before them.