(photo credit: AP [file])
Pressure on the Palestinian Authority to boycott Wednesday's peace talks with Israel continued almost to the last minute.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad were the first to call on the PA leadership to stay away from the talks following Tuesday's IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, which left six Palestinians killed.
Later, some Fatah officials joined the bandwagon by publicly calling on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to suspend all contacts with Israel in protest against the military operation. The pressure on the PA mounted as Al-Jazeera started airing scenes of bodies of Palestinian gunmen killed in the fighting with IDF troops.
As the operation was under way, Abbas called an emergency meeting in his office with his advisers and negotiators to discuss the possibility of boycotting the Wednesday session in Jerusalem. But a message from the Israelis and Americans, that this was just a limited operation and that the IDF had actually begun pulling out of the southern Gaza Strip, prompted Abbas to decide in favor of sending his team to Jerusalem the following day.
Still, there was one more problem. How could PA negotiators be seen sitting with Israeli government officials at a fancy hotel in Jerusalem while the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were burying those killed during the IDF operation?
So the PA negotiators decided that they would attend the meeting in Jerusalem on condition that no camera crews or journalists were permitted to cover the event. The last thing negotiators Ahmed Qurei and Saeb Erekat wanted was to be seen embracing Israelis and posing for photos in public only hours after major TV networks showed Israelis and Palestinians fighting each other in the Gaza Strip.
To avoid criticism, the negotiators were quick to announce after Wednesday's meeting that the talks were "difficult and tense."
They also rushed to appear on Al-Jazeera and other TV stations to tell the Palestinians and Arab viewers that they went to the talks to demand an end to settlement construction and military operations in the Gaza Strip. Qurei and his team were keen on showing everyone that they had actually "reprimanded" their Israeli counterparts because of the decision to build new housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa.
Their "tough" stance, however, was directed more toward the Palestinians than Israel. The PA officials are not insensitive to the sentiments of their people and they can tell when their public is angry with Israel. And on Tuesday, many Palestinians, especially those living in the Gaza Strip, were very angry.
Some officials in Abbas's office are convinced that Israel was deliberately trying to undermine the status of the PA on the eve of the beginning of the "final status" talks. They believe that Tuesday's military campaign in the Gaza Strip and the decision to build new apartments in Har Homa were part of a "conspiracy" aimed at embarrassing the PA leadership and damaging its credibility among Palestinians.
Some of the officials have even gone as far as arguing that Defense Minister Ehud Barak, chairman of the Labor Party, had ordered the military operation to scuttle the peace talks, thus weakening his Kadima rival, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In short, these officials believe that political rivalries in Israel, not the rocket attacks on Sderot and the Negev, were behind Tuesday's military drive.
"Israel's provocative measures are intended to keep us away from the negotiating table," explained one official. "The Israelis are doing all these things with the hope that we would boycott the peace talks. Then they would rush to tell the world that the Palestinians are not serious about making peace. But we didn't fall into this trap and that's why we decided to go to Jerusalem despite the Israeli military aggression and the continued construction in settlements."
As for the "core" issues - Jerusalem, borders, refugees and settlements - that are now on the table, Palestinian representatives say it would be a "miracle" if the two sides manage to reach an agreement in the foreseeable future. Asked to speculate how much time was needed to strike a deal on these issues, a skeptical aide to Abbas replied, "Probably between 80 and 200 years."
Yet the main problem that Abbas and his lieutenants continue to face is not whether the bulldozers are continuing to work in Har Homa, but the fact that many Palestinians still don't see them as a better alternative to Hamas. Nearly two years after Abbas's Fatah faction lost the parliamentary election to Hamas, and six months after his forces lost control over the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians still don't see major changes in Fatah. Nor do they see Fatah learning from its previous mistakes.
In fact, the Palestinians look at the Mukata "presidential" compound in Ramallah and continue to see the same old faces of those who failed their people time and again over the past 15 years. The negotiators who came to Jerusalem on Wednesday are the same figures that negotiated on behalf of the Palestinians at Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Cairo, Wye River, Camp David and, finally, Annapolis.
As far as many Palestinians are concerned, these officials belong to an era of financial corruption, embezzlement and anarchy which they wish to forget. Perhaps that's the reason why most Palestinians have no confidence in the peace talks that were launched this week.
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