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Let down by Obama, Palestinians see few options

reutersA Reuters report By Tom Perry, 17 November 2009


RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – With U.S. diplomacy seemingly going nowhere, Palestinians are exploring desperate and at best symbolic measures to press a demand for a state that even firm believers in peace among them fear may never emerge.

Appeals to the United Nations and European Union to consider recognizing a state that Israel says it cannot accept on the Palestinians’ terms look unlikely to break the deadlock.

Nearly two decades since the start of what became known as the Oslo peace process, stagnation appears to be the short-term outlook for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if Washington manages to persuade the two sides to resume some form of talks.

The risk of violence could turn into near-certainty in time, some Palestinian analysts add, even if there are at present few signs of an appetite for a third Intifada, or uprising, among Palestinians who have lived under Israeli occupation since 1967.

“Either there is a resumption of negotiations, which requires an American initiative, or there will be a political vacuum, which is dangerous because it will most likely be filled at some point by conflict,” said George Giacaman, a political science professor at Birzeit University near Ramallah.

Reflecting its frustration with the stalled peace process, the Ramallah-based Western-backed Palestinian leadership has decided to seek U.N. Security Council support for establishing a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The Hamas Islamists who control Gaza say the plan is a waste of time.

Aiming to stake formally the Palestinian claim to those lands, the initiative is seen failing without the support of the United States, which wields veto power at the Security Council.

The State Department declined direct comment on Tuesday, but made clear it wanted negotiations to resume.

Palestinian expectations of the United States are already at a low following President Barack Obama’s softening of demands for Israel to curb settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians say is destroying their hopes for a viable state.

A related appeal to the European Union met with sounds of sympathy from foreign ministers meeting on Tuesday. But the EU said it was not yet time to give up on negotiations with Israel and called recognition of a Palestinian state “premature.”

SHORT OF OPTIONS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out more than a partial limitation on settlement building in areas of the occupied West Bank not annexed to its Jerusalem municipality. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has stuck by a demand for a total halt to settlement building before any more peace talks.

“The situation is dangerous for the Palestinians because currently we don’t have the tools for a solution,” said Samih Shabib, also a Birzeit University lecturer.

Obama shattered Palestinian hopes that the United States would bring pressure to bear on Israel when he replaced his call for a “freeze” in settlement activity with one for “restraint.”

“Now there is a complete Palestinian conviction that the Palestinian hope for the establishment of a state is impossible unless the American and Israeli positions change,” Shabib said.

Abbas, who has built his career around negotiating peace, remains committed to the “two-state solution” at the core of the 20-year-old peace process. But he said last week that Israel was trying “to remove” the concept.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an independent technocrat who was previously a senior official at the World Bank, has said Israel has “a Mickey Mouse state” in mind for the Palestinians. It would deny them not only an army — an idea they might accept — but also a viable, contiguous territory, due to settlements.

Officials are making increasing references to an alternative — that Palestinians be citizens of a single state governing all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, or all of what was British-ruled Palestine from 1917 to 1948.

That idea is a non-starter for Israel, which was established in 1948, as it would soon put today’s 5.5 million Jews into the minority, given a faster birth rate among Arabs, who also number about 5.5 million across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Though Netanyahu has, under some U.S. pressure, stated his acceptance of a two-state solution, Abbas aides say his actions are pushing in the direction of the alternative.

Some Israeli leaders, notably Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert, have explicitly brandished the one-state alternative to Israelis as a reason for supporting a Palestinian state. Without a Palestinian state, the argument runs, Jewish statehood would entail South African-style apartheid in which Jews rule over a disenfranchised Arab majority in the occupied territories.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat is among Palestinians who also raise the one-state solution as a way to change Israeli minds. “They are leaving no room but the option of the one state. Not me, them, with their settlement activities,” he told Reuters.

“Eighteen years into the peace process, Israel remains our source of authority,” he added. “If this continues you will see full Israeli reoccupation of all our territories.”

Frustrated by the frozen state of the peace process, the politicians who have conducted years of fruitless negotiations with Israel may opt to abandon talks altogether, Giacaman said.

Abbas has already said he does not want to stay on as PA president, though he is expected to remain at the heart of Palestinian politics as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, long led by his late predecessor Yasser Arafat.

“Some people argue that the two-state solution is already dead — at least the two state solution as understood by Palestinians,” Giacaman said. However, the one-state solution would remain politically unrealistic, he added.

Alarmingly for international powers looking with concern at the way the six-decade-old conflict destabilizes the world’s main oil-producing region, the way ahead is shrouded in fog.

“If there is no credible political process within a six-month period to a year, they (the Palestinians) will simply give up,” Giacaman said. “What they will do is not clear.”

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, editing by Alastair Macdonald and Samia Nakhoul)

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