Syria and Israel negotiated directly in the US in 2000 and indirectly in 2008. The PLO and Israel negotiated indirectly first in the late 1980s and directly since the start of the Oslo process. Negotiations so far have not led to a comprehensive peace on either track. What moral can be drawn about the modus operandi, direct or indirect? None. The problem lies elsewhere.
The interest of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in direct talks appears to be motivated by two considerations: first, generating the appearance of "normal" relations with the Palestinian Authority, given the relative international isolation of his government; and second, keeping his coalition afloat. The latter factor requires that no credible progress is achieved in such talks. That is, unless the PLO accepts a "state" in 50 to 60 percent of the West Bank, in isolated cantons, lacking in sovereignty, with possibly the village of Abu Dis being called "Jerusalem", or whatever other area is outside the Wall adjoining Jerusalem that Israel is eager to get rid of for demographic reasons. No Palestinian leadership can accept such terms and survive politically.
For the Palestinians, the predicament is that after 19 years of negotiations, since the Madrid conference in late 1991, it is not possible to have another 19 years of negotiations and retain whatever credibility and legitimacy the PA still maintains among Palestinians. This is why President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) insisted on going directly to so-called final status issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees and sovereignty in the "Annapolis process" that folded at the end of 2008 with no agreement.
After the election of US President Barack Obama, the PLO decided to go along with another final round of negotiations. Following Obama’s lead, talks were conditioned on a settlement freeze. After Obama backed down, accepting a partial and temporary freeze rather than a complete one, "indirect negotiations" or "proximity talks" as they came to be called, were a way to save face for the Palestinian side. Following the lead of the Arab League, the PLO insisted that there should be progress in indirect talks and agreement about the borders of 1967 as a starting point for any direct negotiations before direct negotiations could start. None of this has happened.
Now the Palestinian leadership is under pressure from the Obama administration to go into direct negotiations as Netanyahu demands. This may just be the straw that will break the camel’s back. But even if it doesn’t and the PLO is prevailed upon by the US, with Arab regime backing, time is indeed running out. Barely a day passed after the Netanyahu-Obama meeting in early July when there were already calls in opinion columns in Palestinian newspapers on Abu Mazen to resign and refuse to proceed any further with "negotiations" that most Palestinians see simply as a charade. The internet is full of vituperative condemnation of the PA by Palestinians and Arabs, and the PA is well aware of this.
Whatever political "movement" is generated in the near future as a result of the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, for now and at least until the end of the year everything is short-term crisis management. Obama wants his party to pass through the mid-term November elections as peacefully as possible given the role of the Israel lobby in domestic US politics. Netanyahu needs to gain as much time as possible to keep his coalition intact, and the Palestinian leadership is at the mercy of more powerful actors and is hesitant to use its main source of leverage, i.e., putting the PA’s existence on the line.
For, from a Palestinian point of view, it was never envisioned that the PA would function permanently as a large municipality to administer the affairs of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Thus without a clear end in sight to "negotiations", the PA’s future is doomed. Abu Mazen understands this quite well. This is what was behind his declaration earlier this year that he will not run again for elections. He also said he may take other steps, but did not elaborate. It is widely assumed that resigning from office remains a strong possibility.
But even if he is prevailed upon to give the Obama administration another lease on life in the current crisis management, the future of the PA is very insecure. And there is no partner in government on the Israeli side.
George Giacaman is a faculty member at Birzeit University and teaches in the MA program in Democracy and Human Rights and the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies. This comment is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.