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Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 June 2012
Issue No. 1103
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The game of buying time

A new initiative tabled by Shaul Mofaz has nothing to do with real peace with the Palestinians, writes Saleh Al-Naami

It is difficult to keep track of how many media interviews Shaul Mofaz, acting Israeli prime minister, was given to publicise a political initiative aiming at reviving negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). In order to make his initiative seem serious, Mofaz declared that re-launching talks will be based on 1967 borders, and that he will seek to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas to present the proposal to him. Mofaz's proposal coincided with recurrent leaks by Israel about ongoing secret talks between Saeb Ereikat, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, and an envoy of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

For the Palestinians, Mofaz's initiative is not impressive and should not be dealt with seriously, especially as it comes at a time when there is a big boom in settlement building in the West Bank by the government in which Mofaz is a member. Not only that, but Mofaz himself has played a leading role in efforts to find legal formulae to legalise settlements that are built without permits from the Israeli government, and the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered their removal.

If that were so, then why did Mofaz put forward the proposal? Raviv Drucker, a political commentator on Israel's Channel 10, believes the initiative is a role swap between Mofaz and the extreme right in Netanyahu's coalition. According to Drucker, hardline forces on the right -- led by a large bloc of Knesset members and ministers in the ruling Likud Party headed by Netanyahu -- flagrantly insist on forging ahead on not only with settlement plans but also in passing laws in the Knesset that legitimise the annexation of private Palestinian land that settlers take by force.

"It is clear that these Israeli actions have triggered angry international reactions. [The proposal] also limits the margin of manoeuvrability of PA leaders and embarrasses them in front of Palestinian public opinion," Drucker said. "It also ties Abbas's hands since he insists on continuing security cooperation with Israel to confront Palestinian resistance at all costs. Therefore, one of the goals of this initiative is to create conditions that allow for continued security cooperation between Israel and the PA."

Abbas's response to consider Mofaz's proposal gives a deceptive impression to the world community that the Palestinians think there is something worth discussing with the Israelis, and is certain to divert attention from Israel's strategy aiming to determine the fate of occupied Palestinian land on the ground through settlement and Judaisation projects. It would decrease international criticism and improve Israel's image on the international stage, and serves as a fig leaf for the PA to continue security cooperation with the occupation.

It is noteworthy that a team of senior Israeli orientalists recently recommended that Netanyahu should be careful not undermine his friend Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in front of Palestinian public opinion since they are "the best Palestinian leaders for Israel's interests".

Another reason why Mofaz's initiative should not be taken seriously is recently announced tenders by Israel's government to build thousands of housing units soon after the proposal was unveiled. Netanyahu has also asserted that Beit El settlement, northeast of Ramallah, will be annexed to Israel in any future political settlement with the Palestinians. If the settlement of Beit El, which is in the heart of the West Bank, will be annexed to Israel then one can only anticipate what Israel's position will be regarding larger settlement compounds.

At the same time, one cannot ignore the personal reasons behind Mofaz's initiative, namely that he has reversed all his previous promises before he joined Netanyahu's cabinet once he realised that his party is on its way to a crushing defeat in the coming elections. Mofaz is trying to give the impression to Israeli public opinion that his presence in the cabinet is linked to higher "national" goals, and not just to serve his own political career.

Like other Israel initiatives that aim to buy time and deceive, Mofaz's proposal is not based on clear foundations. Saying negotiations will be based on 1967 borders does not mean that Israel will be willing to withdraw to these borders. In all cases, Israel always wants to set an agenda for negotiations that conforms to its priorities. For example, Mofaz's plan makes it clear that Israel is primarily concerned with discussing security arrangements, and he knows that no Palestinian will agree to the level of compromises needed to meet the security requirements being demanded.

Meanwhile, it is no coincidence that Mofaz's proposal comes at a time when Palestinian reconciliation is making progress, after Fatah and Hamas reached an agreement that paves the way for a consensus government. Neither is it a secret that Israel's strategic interests are best served by continued inter-Palestinian divisions. Putting pressure on the PA not to reconcile would be more effective if talks are restarted between the two sides, and that way the US and Europeans would also be able to exert pressure on the PA.

Some Palestinians believe that Abbas's recent positions encouraged Israelis to continue putting pressure on him to lure him into talks that specifically aim to improve Israel's international standing and block Palestinian reconciliation. It was unusual and outrageous for Abbas to demand preconditions to start negotiations with Israel that have nothing to do with the talks themselves. Abbas recently demanded that Israel should allow the PA to import light weapons for use by its security agencies, and release around 150 Palestinian prisoners arrested before the Oslo Accords. Abbas, however, did not demand an end to settlement building and Judaisation, nor Israel's recognition of the international points of reference for negotiations.

Sufyan Abu Zaydah, political science professor and former Palestinian cabinet member, explained that Mofaz is an Israeli politician who believes that resolving the conflict with the Palestinians is based on granting them a "temporary state" while postponing key issues that are at the heart of the Palestinian cause, such as Jerusalem, refugees, sovereignty and others. Abu Zaydah added that Abbas, meanwhile, rejects the notion of a "state with temporary borders".

The political expert, who is also a leading Fatah member, cautioned against the repercussions of accepting Mofaz's proposal to meet Abbas because Israel's leaders are trying to deceive the world community by holding meetings to give the impression that Israel is keen on reviving the settlement process. "Netanyahu will never accept paying a price for his deputy Mofaz to meet with Abbas," stated Abu Zaydah. "He will never stop settlement building which has become a given in the past three years; neither will he accept negotiating on the basis of Israel withdrawing to 1967 borders, including in East Jerusalem."

He added: "Unlike Mofaz, Netanyahu is clear in his rejection of reaching a resolution and creating a reality on the ground in his obvious pursuit of settling the fate of talks before they start, whereby he would surprise the Palestinians that settlements have taken over their land on which they hoped to create their independent state."

Abu Zaydah, who was once one of the most enthusiastic Palestinian leaders about a political settlement with Israel, concluded that the PA must be honest with the Palestinian people, in that after two decades of "charade" negotiations it is impossible under current conditions to resolve the conflict using the methods this leadership has adopted, and it must seek other means.

"We must admit that we failed in achieving the aspirations of the Palestinian people," he admitted. "Most importantly, creating an independent state within 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, and a fair resolution of the refugee issue. We must admit that there is no hope in the near future that there will be any change in Israel's position or the balance of power on the world stage that favours Israel. Therefore, we must pursue other political and resistance means other than the ones used over the past two decades."

Mofaz's initiative joins a long list of Israeli initiatives that primarily aim at buying time and improving Israel's image on the world stage without any true intention of resolving the conflict.

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