With Palestinians painted into a corner, peace talks hinge on US guidance

Abbas defiant as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urges Palestinians and Israelis to 'look at bigger picture'.

epa01985701 Israeli border policemen disperse Palestinian and left-wing Israeli activists on 11 January 2010. during a protest on agricultural land in the southern West Bank village of Safaa, near Hebron,  EPA/ABED AL HASHLAMOUN *** Local Caption ***  01985701.jpg *** Local Caption ***  01985701.jpg
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RAMALLAH // With pressure mounting on the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel even without a full settlement construction freeze in occupied territory, the onus has very much shifted on to US diplomatic efforts to ensure that talks are renewed. Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, continues to resist the pressure, which is now coming from Arab countries as well as Washington, insisting that Israel must completely end construction work in settlements before he will return to talks.

The longer the PLO holds out against the pressure, the harder it will be for Mr Abbas to back down from that pledge, and the greater must be the incentive offered from Washington. Palestinians consider settlement construction a way for Israel to create facts on the ground that pre-empt the outcome of negotiations. What is the point of negotiating while the land in question is disappearing even as talks are held? Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator, asked this week.

In response, the United States has urged the sides to consider the bigger picture, or "look at the forest", in the words of Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on Friday. Washington wants the sides first to discuss borders as a way to resolve other issues. Borders, after all, cannot be agreed upon without also implicitly agreeing on settlements and Jerusalem. However, in and of itself, asking the sides to discuss borders first will not mitigate for the lack of a full settlement freeze. In parallel, the United States is understood to be drafting letters of guarantees to both sides. It has been reported the White House plans to offer the Palestinians assurance that any state will be based on the 1967 borders with only minor adjustments and the Israelis a promise that some settlements will remain and be annexed to Israel.

To avoid any danger of contradiction in these guarantees, the United States should sketch out a final position in terms of percentages, said Gershon Baskin, head of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information in J "The problem with dealing with borders is you can't detach borders from the size of the territories. If the Palestinians are given a guarantee that a Palestinian state will be 22 per cent of the land between the river and the sea, then you can ask them to come to the table to negotiate borders first," Mr Baskin said, referring to the size of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 in relation to historic Palestine.

That way, Mr Baskin suggested, Palestinian concerns that Israel would take more territory during negotiations through settlement construction should be allayed, and the sides could focus on where exactly borders should run, knowing the amount of territory each state would be. It is doubtful that Washington intends to be very explicit in its assurances, however. Washington burnt its fingers when it endorsed the Palestinian call for a full settlement construction freeze only to back down and embrace the settlement "freeze" that Israel eventually came up with - one that excludes settlement construction in East Jerusalem, construction for buildings deemed essential for the public good in settlements generally, as well as 3,000 housing units already approved elsewhere in the West Bank.

Indeed, perhaps the most crucial question Palestinians seek answered is to what extent Washington is willing to exert any serious pressure on Israel. George Mitchell, the US envoy to the region, recently hinted in an interview with the US PBS network that Washington did not have to extend loan guarantees to Israel as one means of pressure. But Mr Mitchell appeared to be speaking for himself and immediately qualified his statement by saying that he still thought the best way forwards was for Washington to convince the parties of what was in their self-interest. That is a formula that has been tried for 18 years, ever since the first peace conference in Madrid, and with no result. Without serious US pressure on Israel, Palestinians say, negotiations are unlikely to succeed. And should another peace process fail, it could spell the end not only of the PLO leadership, but for the Palestinian Authority, which was only meant as a transition authority for seven years until full statehood was achieved under the Oslo process.

"Without US pressure on Israel, talks will fail," said George Giacaman, a Ramallah-based analyst. "Failure will mean the end of the road as far as negotiations are concerned. It will result in a political vacuum on the Palestinian side and, further down the road, more violent confrontations." okarmi@thenational.ae