While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appear to believe that they are making political progress, they will need the encouragement and support of the United States to strengthen their respective internal political positions. The reality on both sides is increasingly restricting any chances of success.
In Israel, the anticipation of the Winograd commission s findings and possible early elections is creating a political atmosphere not conducive to progress. Leaders within the ruling party Kadima as well as the other main parties, Likud and Labor, are competing with each other to take hard line positions in order to pander to a public that has been radicalized over the last seven years. Recent statements from Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and even Tzipi Livni do not provide much support for the political efforts of Olmert.
In addition, of course, the government itself has been taking a tough line vis-a-vis the Palestinians, partly as a result of the political atmosphere. There is an increase, not a decrease, in the Israeli army s military operations in the West Bank and Gaza. There is a consequent increase in the number of Palestinian casualties and prisoners. There is also an accelerating settlement expansion process while a growing section of the wall is being built inside Palestinian territories along with a tightening of the closure regime and the restriction on the movement of Palestinians.
The situation on the Palestinian side, meanwhile, is not easier for Abbas. The Israeli escalation of its oppressive and illegal measures against Palestinians in occupied territory is discrediting the political efforts between the two leaders and is stripping the Palestinian political leadership of public support. The split between Gaza and the West Bank and the growing tension between Fatah and the other PLO factions on the one hand and Hamas on the other, which is apparent in both Gaza and the West Bank, is also not conducive to political efforts.
But even Fateh and the other PLO factions – which have been showing a certain level of unity in the face of the growing threats and aggression of Hamas, especially in Gaza – are unable to show much support for the political process because it is completely alienated from the reality on the ground. That reality is completely overshadowed by the hostile Israeli posture.
There are indications that Abbas is postponing dealing with his internal problems, including with Hamas, until he can reach some kind of an agreement with Israel that will bolster his domestic political position. If he achieves this, he will be able to deal with Hamas from a much stronger position. However, if such agreement does not affect the illegal Israeli practices on the ground, especially those that consolidate the occupation and humiliate the people, it may not be perceived as much of an achievement by the Palestinian public and consequently may not empower the Palestinian leadership as anticipated.
An active and effective intervention by the international community is badly needed. The Quartet, led by the US and guided by international legality, must influence both the substance of negotiations and the practical situation on the ground. An agreement on a possible future Palestinian state will be meaningless if it is not accompanied by a cessation of the expansion of settlements and the building of the illegal wall.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.