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(photo credit: AP [file])
Less than two weeks before the planned US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, Palestinian Authority representatives are increasingly skeptical about the prospects of reaching a declaration of principles with Israel before the gathering.
While some PA officials have hinted that failure at Annapolis would prompt PA President Mahmoud Abbas to resign, others said they did not rule out the possibility of another wave of anti-Israel violence, especially in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, a London-based pan-Arab newspaper claimed Saturday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has offered to absorb some 20,000 Palestinian refugees inside the Green Line. According to the report in Al-Hayat, Olmert made the offer during a closed meeting with Abbas.
Abbas, who visited Saudi Arabia over the weekend, is reported to have told the kingdom's rulers that he prefers to resign than go to a conference that is unlikely to produce "positive" results, a senior PA official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post.
"President Abbas is concerned that failure would undermine his power," the official said. "His major concern is that Israel and the US would blame him for failure. He's also worried that the Palestinians would lose their faith in the peace process and turn to Hamas after they see that Annapolis did not give them anything."
The official added that Abbas's threat to quit was this time "serious." He warned that frustration on the Palestinian street would explode into violence if Abbas returns empty-handed. "Failure at Annapolis will undermine the moderates and strengthen Hamas," the official said. "As such, it would be better to delay the conference until the two sides bridge the wide gap between them."
However, a top aide to Abbas told the Post that it was "premature" to talk about this issue, adding that the PA chairman was still pinning hope that US pressure on Israel would lead to a breakthrough.
Jamal Shubaki, the PA representative in Saudi Arabia, said Abbas told King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz during their meeting that he was pessimistic about the conference's chances of succeeding.
"The Israeli position remains negative and the US must intervene to exert pressure on Israel to abide by the road map, the Arab peace initiative [of 2002] and all United Nations resolutions pertaining to the Israeli-Arab conflict," Shubaki said. "The Palestinians are unhappy with the Israeli position because Israel hasn't done anything so far to make the conference succeed."
According to Shubaki, the Saudi monarch expressed understanding for Abbas's concerns and said that he, too, was convinced that Israel was not serious in reaching a deal with the Palestinians ahead of the conference.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said over the weekend that the talks with Israel were facing many difficulties. But he said that it was still early to talk about a crisis.
"There's a very thin line between the difficulties we are facing and a real crisis," he explained. He said the talks between the two parties, which are expected to resume this week, will determine whether the Palestinians and Israelis are capable of bridging the gap.
The Palestinian leadership's fear of failure is believed to behind the fact that the PA has, in the past few days, toughened its position on a number of issues and raised new demands.
In addition to the core issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees, the PA leaders are now openly challenging Israel's right to define itself as a homeland for the Jews. Moreover, they are demanding the release of at least 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, the reopening of all PLO institutions in east Jerusalem and the removal of dozens of IDF checkpoints before the conference.
The PA insists that these measures are essential to restoring the Palestinian public's confidence in the peace process and boosting Abbas's standing among his constituents.
Israel's insistence on defining itself as a Jewish state has been dismissed by PA representatives as "racist" because of their fear that Palestinian refugees would never be permitted to return to their former villages inside the Green Line.
Writing in the PA-funded Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda newspaper, columnist Ahmed Dahbour said: "The occupation is asking the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish character of its Zionist entity. This means denying the Palestinians the right to the homeland that they inherited from their ancestors. This means that a Jewish child who is born in the Republic of Latvia has more rights in Palestine than my grandfather, who was born in Haifa in 1890."
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