Direct Israel-Palestine talks no closer

Palestine Liberation Organisation demand specific commitments from Israel before it agrees to face-to-face meeting.

RAMALLAH // As a deadline for a decision on moving from indirect to direct talks nears, the prospects for face-to-face negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel appear as remote as ever. Although Washington is manoeuvring behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for such talks, it seems unlikely that, absent specific commitments from Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organisation will willingly move to direct negotiations.

Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, told his Fatah faction in a behind-closed-doors meeting on Thursday that the PLO would decide by July 28 whether enough progress in indirect negotiations with Israel had been made to move to direct talks. Specifically, the PLO is seeking US guarantees on the terms of reference for any talks and an extension, at a minimum, of the partial and temporary Israeli moratorium on settlement construction that is due to run out in September.

George Mitchell, the US Middle East peace envoy, had earlier in the week relayed a message to Mr Abbas from Barack Obama, the US president, that the terms of reference for direct talks would be the creation of a Palestinian state on territory that Israel occupied during the 1967 war. But Mr Abbas told reporters after the Thursday meeting with Fatah's Revolutionary Council that the language used by Mr Obama's envoy "was less clear than the language that we had" during the previous US administration and the ideas put forward were "few and insufficient, and require a lot of clarification".

He had earlier told members of his Fatah movement that there had to be a clearly defined settlement construction freeze in addition to terms of references that include the 1967 borders before the PLO would go to direct negotiations. "We are not against direct negotiations," Mr Abbas said. "If there is progress by July 28, we will present it to the Arab League. If there is no progress, we will tell the league that we will continue with the proximity talks until the end of the four-month mandate we received."

The latter certainly seems more likely as things stand. The US is clearly putting pressure on Mr Abbas to agree to direct talks, partly, say observers, in order to reach November's mid-term elections in the US with a sense that progress in peace-making is being made. The US is also apparently offering the PLO certain sweeteners as a way to encourage Mr Abbas to enter into direct negotiations. On Friday, for example, it was announced that Washington would upgrade the status of the PLO's mission in Washington to that of a general delegation.

This has little practical implication, though it has been a long-standing request of the PLO. It is, moreover, unlikely to be enough for Palestinians to be convinced to go to direct negotiations. Palestinians, explained one official, "do not need sweeteners from the US. We need seriousness from Israel". The consistent message from Palestinian officials, whether those engaged directly in the proximity talks or those outside the loop, was that there has been no progress in the current round of US-mediated shuttle diplomacy. They accused Israel of being unwilling and unable to present any serious proposals in the talks, even after specific requests from the US, and say they saw no sign that this will change with direct talks.

What has changed was that after the meeting earlier this month between Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mr Obama both appeared to endorse the move to direct talks, thus putting the ball in the Palestinian side of the court. That has left Mr Abbas in a difficult position, if only because with little obvious prospect of success for negotiations, entering into them would not only be highly unpopular among Palestinians, it could be a dangerous move for the Palestinian Authority.

"Palestinians never envisioned that the PA would function permanently as a large municipality to administer the affairs of Palestinians under Israeli occupation," said George Giacaman, a Ramallah-based analyst. Mr Giacaman said that, after 19 years of largely fruitless negotiations, "it is not possible to have another 19 years of negotiations and retain whatever credibility and legitimacy the PA has left" among Palestinians.

"Without a clear end in sight to negotiations, the PA's future could well be doomed." Mr Giacaman pointed out that Mr Abbas may already have seen the writing on the wall when earlier this year he announced that he would not seek re-election. And if pushed against his better judgement into direct negotiations he considers futile, chances are that he will resign. That is not likely to be the outcome sought in Washington.