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In Depth
Finding strength in absurdity?
For Mahmoud Abbas to keep talking as Israel constructs settlements would mean accepting the theft of Palestinian land.
Last Modified: 27 Sep 2010 14:45
Settlement construction has resumed in the West Bank [GALLO/GETTY] 

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has called on the Palestinians not to quit direct negotiations while at the same time refusing to extend a moratorium on Jewish settlement construction that ended on Sunday.

Settlers have reportedly resumed building in different parts of the occupied West Bank, making it difficult, if not impossible, for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to continue participating in the US-sponsored talks.

He is now expected to seek Arab support for a withdrawal from the talks at a special Arab League meeting on October 4.

Oslo's fatal flaw

The Israeli suggestion that Palestinians should continue to participate in the talks under these circumstances is essentially asking them to accept the theft of their land while pretending to negotiate over its future status.

The Palestinian demand for a complete halt to settlement expansion - rather than a mere freeze - is long overdue.

While the Oslo Accords stipulated that neither side should engage in actions that could prejudice the final outcome of talks, one of the major flaws of the whole Oslo process, which started in 1993, was that it did not clearly specify an end to settlement construction.

Of course, as settlement construction and the accompanying confiscation of land and displacement of Palestinians would greatly prejudice the final status of the occupied territories, Palestinian negotiators considered this to be covered by the clause. But Israel chose to ignore this - along with most of the other agreements signed since Oslo - escalating its land-grabbing and expanding its colonies across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As a result of this, the number of settlers has tripled and, according to an Israeli human rights group, the settlements - together with their surrounding infrastructure - control 42 per cent of the West Bank, while Israel has tightened its grip over East Jerusalem.

Thus when Barak Obama, the US president, called for an immediate halt, then back-tracked to a freeze, on settlement construction, the Palestinians saw an unprecedented opportunity to build an international consensus against the persistent Israeli colonisation of Arab lands.

Obama later dropped his demand that a freeze on settlement building be a prerequisite for the resumption of the then stalled direct negotiations and, using the threat to withdraw international and even Arab funding, effectively coerced the Palestinian side into reluctantly joining talks.

So Abbas attended the talks but insisted that the freeze be extended before delving into other issues, prompting Obama to reiterate his call that Israel extend the moratorium. When this was not forthcoming, Abbas did not immediately walk out - agreeing to give the Americans time to find a compromise that could salvage the shaky talks.

Signing away Palestinian rights

But, so far, the compromises floated by the Israeli media are in essence worse than the settlers' plans to increase construction.

One such proposal is that Israel adopts a partial freeze in smaller settlements while continuing to build in major settlement blocks.

Abbas, whose legitimacy is already under question in the absence of new elections, cannot afford to accept proposals that effectively amount to legitimising Israeli plans to annex the largest and most populated West Bank settlements.

Judging by the official Israeli rhetoric and the leaked proposals, Netanyahu seems determined to pursue the plan he once advocated to annex at least 40 per cent of the West Bank, in addition to East Jerusalem, as part of his vision for a final solution.

The Israeli side is relying mainly on US support and military force to impose such solutions on the Palestinians, in defiance of international law and UN resolutions.

As international law forbids the confiscation or annexation of lands under occupation, Netanyahu is trying to coerce the Palestinians into forfeiting their rights by signing their consent to such a move.

But while Abbas, and the Palestinian position generally, is weak - due mainly to the uneven power balance and partly to Palestinian divisions - he cannot afford to make such a major concession at any stage, let along prior to entering final status talks.

Reconciliation and retribution

Furthermore, the revival of reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah in Damascus last week has strengthened Abbas' position as president while simultaneously binding him more closely to the national goals of the Palestinian people.

If anything the prospect of failed negotiations has increased support for national reconciliation so as to prepare the Palestinian people for any potential Israeli - and possibly even American - retribution if and when the talks collapse.

Pressed by the Fatah movement to focus on reconciliation with Hamas, Abbas is now less likely to accept any compromise that would undermine those efforts.

He recently said that participating in negotiations as settlement building continued would "be a waste of time". He ought now to heed those words as it will not only be a waste of time but a waste of Palestinian land, while inflicting more suffering on the Palestinian people.

In fact, it is high time that Palestinians call not only for a freeze to settlement construction but a complete halt based on the understanding that the settlements are illegal colonies that obstruct the Palestinian right to self-determination and independence.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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