It has been almost two years since Israeli and Palestinian officials at the most senior level have sat down together. That was supposed to happen on Sunday, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had invited Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz to come to Ramallah. But that meeting was called off after a series of domestic events in Israel and the Palestinian Authority made it impossible.
On the Palestinian side, several dozen youth demonstrated in the West Bank town of Ramallah against the invitation to Mofaz, a former IDF chief-of-staff. The protestors tried to march to the Muqataa', Abbas's headquarters, and were stopped by riot police. Witnesses said the demonstrators were beaten and at least three were taken to the hospital.
"I think people should be guaranteed the right to express themselves and that protest was within the acceptable standards," Ghassan Khatib, the director of the Government Media Center in Ramallah told The Media Line. "Palestinian laws guarantee freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate. I think the Palestinian police overreacted."
There were also calls on Facebook for Mofaz to be arrested as a war criminal if he came to Ramallah. "Mofaz is (the late Palestinian leader Yassir) Arafat's killer and he should be put on trial," was one comment.
The demonstrations came as Abbas's popularity has declined significantly in the past few months, while support for the Islamist Hamas has risen. A new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research headed by Khalil Shikaki found that Abbas would still win an election against Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, but only by a few points – 49% to 44%. By comparison, Marwan Barghouti -- the popular Fatah leader serving five consecutive life sentences for murder -- would fare much better, winning 60 percent to Haniyeh's 40 percent.
"The cancellation of the meeting between Abbas and Mofaz had nothing to do with us – it had to do with internal pressures among the Palestinians," Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science told The Media Line. "Hamas is always there and the Palestinian government has a real fear of extremists."
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said Israel had hoped the meeting would go forward.
"Israel has been ready and remains ready for talks with the Palestinians anytime, anywhere, at any level without preconditions whatsoever," Regev told The Media Line.
Israeli media, however, said that at least part of the cause for the cancellation of the high-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting had to do with tensions between Mofaz and Netanyahu over army service for the ultra-Orthodox. According to the speculation, Netanyahu ordered the meeting cancelled as a way to punish Mofaz who threatened to leave the coalition over this issue, which is among the most inflammatory matters before the public.
The current law governing the drafting of the ultra-Orthodox, the Tal law, is due to expire at the end of July. In effect, that law has allowed some 62,000 ultra-Orthodox seminary students to avoid the mandatory army service required of all citizens. In February, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional and Netanyahu appointed a committee to consider a replacement law.
The fact that most ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the army or do some form of national service has long rankled Israel's secular majority. The Shas party, which is part of Netanyahu's coalition and ruled by rabbinic dictate, vehemently opposes forcing the ultra-Orthodox to be drafted. At the same time, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu party has insisted that the military burden be shared equally. In May, Kadima leader Mofaz joined Netanyahu's government, giving the prime minister the largest majority in recent Israeli history with 94 out of 120 seats in parliament. Kadima's presence in the government means that if one or two parties pull out of the coalition, Netanyahu would still have a majority.
Mofaz is demanding that ultra-Orthodox who do not join the army face "personal sanctions," which Netanyahu has so far refused.
A senior Israeli official said the cancellation of the meeting with the Palestinians had nothing to do with tensions between Netanyahu and Mofaz.
"That's just Israelis trying to make everything political," he told The Media Line. At the same time he said that the negotiating freeze was only hurting the Palestinians.
"We think the Palestinians are not serving their own interests or the interests of peace by refusing to engage with us," he said.
But Palestinian officials say the blame sits squarely with Israel.
"Palestinians are eager to go back to negotiations," said official Ghassan Khatib. "They think the other side is rather busy in consolidating the occupation that negotiations are supposed to be about ending. Israel wants conditional negotiations, and to continue being able to expand the settlements while negotiations are continuing."
Israel agreed to a ten month settlement freeze excluding east Jerusalem, which expired in October, 2010. Palestinians have said negotiations cannot resume unless the freeze is extended.
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