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Looking into the abyss

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Mahmoud Abbasby Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem

A decision by the Obama administration to abandon efforts to persuade Israel to renew its settlement construction freeze was the latest blow to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas's project of peace and national unity.

Hours before the US statement was released, Abu Mazen's words during a televised interview in Ramallah earlier this week still bore the "if" word. Abbas said if peace negotiations with Israel collapsed, the Palestinians might seek unilateral UN recognition of a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, territories that Israel seized in 1967, and cede all policing to the Israelis.

"If all efforts fail, I will tell the Americans and the Israelis, 'Come and put an end to all this. I can't continue like this. I can't preside over an authority that doesn't exist. No, keep it all and release me from this responsibility.'"

Responding to a further question on whether he really meant what he said, Abbas said: "Yes, I am saying this to the Israelis: 'You can stay [in our land] as occupiers, but the situation will not remain as it is.'"

Abbas's remarks seem to reflect his deep disillusionment with the barren peace process, constantly corroded by unmitigated Israeli settlement-building and coupled with snail-paced and generally fruitless efforts by the Obama administration to get Israel to reach a "compromise" that would entice the PA to return to uncertain talks.

Moreover, Abbas's threat -- made not for the first time -- ostensibly came after the Obama administration informally told the PA leadership of its failure to get Israel to renew the settlement freeze in order to give peace negotiations a chance.

PA sources said no final message was received and that the PA was sill awaiting such a message from Washington. The Obama administration was reportedly trying to induce Israel to partially freeze settlement expansion for 90 days in exchange for massive military aid and diplomatic concessions that some Western commentators have describe as "tomfoolery" and "scandalous".

It is uncertain if Abbas is really serious about carrying out his threat to dissolve the PA regime altogether. Critics describe the PA regime as a massive but enticing liability impeding the realisation of true Palestinian statehood and independence.

"The existence of the Palestinian Authority, whether we like it or not, serves to consolidate and perpetuate the Israeli occupation. The number of Jewish settler units in the occupied territories tripled under the PA regime, and Israel utilises the PA to evade and avoid its legal responsibilities as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention," argued Hazem Kawasmeh, a noted economist from East Jerusalem. "In fact, Israel uses the PA to tell the world that the occupation has ended."

Kawasmeh pointed out that the PA was assuming the worst possible role any agency languishing under a foreign military occupation could assume; namely, so-called "security coordination" with the enemy. "This is why we see members of the American-trained Palestinian security agencies disappear whenever the occupation forces storm Palestinian population centres to arrest, repress or kill Palestinians."

Proponents of this view argue that the Palestinian people should never allow themselves to be hostage to a situation whereby they have to choose between an authority lacking sovereignty and perpetual military occupation. Nonetheless, a large number of citizens' careers, livelihoods and financial wellbeing have come to be inextricably entwined with the existence and survival of the PA. Hence, talking about dismantling the PA is one thing and doing it on the ground is another.

It is estimated that there are 130,000 civil servants who receive their salary from the PA at the end of each month. In addition to that, there are 60,000-70,000 security personnel distributed across several security agencies that help establish law and order as well as keep "anti-peace elements" -- a euphemism for Islamic activists -- at bay. What would happen to these hundreds of thousands of people who would lose their jobs and sources of income?

Also, would the PA police and paramilitary forces simply hand over their weapons, equipment and facilities to the Israelis and return home? Israel is not particularly enthusiastic about retaking responsibility for running the day-to-day affairs of nearly three million disillusioned and angry Palestinians. Despite opposition from some messianic settlers who wanted to take the land and expel its inhabitants, Israel saw the establishment of Palestinian self-rule as a good thing, allowing Israel to retain nearly all the Palestinian assets -- as an occupying power -- while forcing all the liabilities onto the Palestinian government that itself is answerable to Israel.

Hence, it is highly doubtful that even if the PA leadership wanted to dissolve the PA regime, Israel would allow the return of the status-quo ante (the situation that prevailed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993). Such a situation is a nightmare for Israeli strategic planners whose calculations are based on annexing to Israel as much Palestinian land and as little Palestinian demography as possible.

Meanwhile, the PA has received a badly needed moral boost from three South American states, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, which announced their recognition of the nation-state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders. Other countries might follow suit, which would create a new reality and even new momentum towards the possible resolution of the world's longest-running conflict. International recognition would also throw US plans into shambles and cause Israel diplomatic embarrassment and isolation.


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