Palestinians harbour few expectations of talks about talks with Israel that began last night over dinner in Washington and are to continue today.
The object of these meetings, the first in three years, is to "develop a procedural workplan" for projected negotiations. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohamed Shtayyeh are representing the Palestinian side.
President Mahmoud Abbas is on a tight rein. He has the blessing of Fatah – the movement that rules Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank and dominates the Palestine Liberation Organisation but neither its other nine members nor non-member Hamas, which rules Gaza, agree to talks.
Palestinians have demonstrated against talks on the streets of Gaza and Ramallah where protesters were beaten by police when they marched towards Mr Abbas’s headquarters.
Consequently, Mr Abbas cannot deviate from the Palestinian preconditions for full-blown negotiations: an end to Israeli settlement activity and an agreement that the line of June 4th, 1967 – before Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza – should be the basis of a territorial deal. Israel rejects these positions.
Israel has agreed to release up to 104 prisoners held before 1993 when the Oslo peace accord was signed. However, Israel promised but failed to free them in 1999. While the first batch is to be freed on the feast that ends the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the detention of the others will depend on progress in negotiations. Legislator Mustafa Barghouti said this conditioning of releases could subject the Palestinian side to "blackmail" to secure concessions in negotiations. Furthermore, the inclusion of 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel in the overall group is disputed by Israel.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who heads an East Jerusalem think tank, told The Irish Times that Mr Abbas remains "personally committed" to negotiations and has been encouraged by the Obama administration's determination to press for talks.
'Back against the wall'
He has the "endorsement of the Arab League, Palestinian Authority employees and Fatah" while "Hamas's back is against the wall" since it has lost the support of Iran, Egypt, Syria and Hizbullah. Finally, he said, "Jordan is moving in as a full partner in final status talks" as the outcome could "determine that country's future as well".
If the talks fail, as seems likely, Mr Abbas has three options: return to the UN for expanded recognition of Palestinian statehood, lodge cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court, and reconcile with Hamas.
Former minister Ghassan Khatib said the talks would allow the US to declare “an achievement” in this volatile region and enable Israel to avoid US pressure if it refuses to participate. “The Palestinians are not going to achieve anything [on a final deal] but may benefit from confidence-building measures that might improve the situation.”
Dr Khatib is not optimistic. “The US and Israel understand the weakness of the Palestinians who are isolated by regional events, and divided [between Fatah and Hamas]. There is no hope of ending the occupation; the internal situation in Israel is moving rapidly to the right.”