January 26, that is yesterday, came and went pretty much like the month of
September – namely, with a whimper.
Remember September, the month when
the Palestinians made their much-trumpeted and widely-feared play for statehood
recognition at the United Nations. Defense Minister Ehud Barak prophesied a
diplomatic tsunami; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned of the worst
Palestinian violence Israel had ever faced; and Haaretz continuously cautioned
about a third intifada.
Yet none of that materialized.
materialize was a new deadline, a new target for our diplomatic angst: January
By that date, either Israel would give in to the Palestinian demands
for renewing negotiations – which in addition to freezing all construction
beyond the Green Line and accepting the 1967 lines as the baseline for future
talks, now also included releasing high-profile Fatah prisoners – or else the
Palestinians would call off the nascent Jordan channel and reevaluate their
And what made January 26 so special? That was the deadline,
according to the Palestinian calculations, that the Quartet – made up of the US,
EU, Russia and UN – gave the sides for making significant progress in direct
negotiations and providing each other with comprehensive proposals on security
and border issues.
Israel’s position is that this particular deadline
doesn’t kick in until the beginning of April.
So January 26 came and
went, but nothing truly dramatic happened.
Granted, in the days up to the
deadline various Palestinian spokesmen issued threats about walking away from
the talks, but there has been no formal announcement to that
Indeed, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, after meeting
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman on Thursday, said there
was no impasse in the talks.
In any case, Abbas is not expected to make
any decision before the convening on February 4 in Cairo of an Arab League
meeting. And at that meeting, he is expected to get a green light for continuing
the talks, largely because he has no first-rate alternatives.
something substantial to remain in the talks, or else” has been the tone of
Palestinian sentiment since the talks – sponsored by Jordan – began a few weeks
ago. But the “or else” component of that equation does not seem that
If the talks fail, Abbas essentially has two options: He could
move more determinedly on reconciliation talks with Hamas, or he could go back
to the unilateral track at the UN.
Neither option, however, is presently
viable. The reconciliation talks with Hamas, in the works for months, are not
producing real results, and rather than narrowing gaps, additional ones have
And regarding the UN option, the Palestinians do not have
significant international support for returning to the UN to seek statehood
Besides, the Palestinian gambit at the UN in September did
not work, and they were unable to garner the support of nine countries on the
15-member UN Security Council to force a US veto on the issue. And although the
composition of the Security Council changed in January as five countries joined,
and five others left, the balance of power there on the Palestinian statehood
question did not tilt one way or the other.
There is always another
Palestinian option, a return to violence, but this would cost the Palestinians
dearly in international sympathy, one of their key assets.
One thing that
Ashton’s rather low-key visit to the region this week indicated was that the
Europeans have not yet concluded that Israel is to blame for an impasse in the
Amman discussions, and do not believe that the Palestinians would be justified
in leaving the table.
The Europeans see the talks as the only good game
in town, and Israel has not supplied a sufficient reason to them for declaring
the Amman channel a dead end. And if that is true of the Europeans, it is even
more the case regarding Washington.
So with reconciliation with Hamas not
in the offing, the UN blocked, and violence a losing diplomatic proposition, the
only real option for the PA remains the low-level talks.
officials have said the Palestinians are reluctant – with US President Barack
Obama on the eve of elections – to negotiate seriously with Israel, because of a
sense that he will not be able to pressure Israel because of electoral
While this may be true, it does not mean that all will
remain motionless until November. Rather, the diplomatic goal now as seen in
many capitals around the world is simply to avoid back-sliding, to prevent the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict from exploding.
That is an interest of all
sides: The PA, concerned about how Hamas would exploit a violent confrontation
and possibly make inroads into the West Bank; Israel, which has no interest in
another round of terrorist violence; the US, facing an election in November; and
the Europeans, on the verge of an economic abyss.
As a result, the
Palestinians are likely to continue with these lowlevel talks – though few give
the discussions any chance of leading to a dramatic breakthrough – if only
because right now they don’t have other workable options.