Palestinian officials hope the upcoming visit by President Barack Obama will end the current deadlock in the peace process, but are skeptical that the visit will change the situation on the ground.
Speaking to reporters before a PLO Executive Committee meeting at his Ramallah compound, The Muqata, on Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the Obama visit this week but said that resuming negotiations with Israel requires that it freeze its building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem; and release Palestinian prisoners detained before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Abbas also called for an international probe into the death on Saturday of a security prisoner detained by Israel; and improved conditions for other incarcerated Palestinians. He said that the Palestinian leadership doesn't want to see an escalation of the recent violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces that has raged since the weekend, but rather seeks to reach a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Ahead of the Obama visit, a Palestinian official told The Media Line that the American president will not be presenting a proposal to the parties. Echoing pre-visit statements coming from Washington, the official, who spoke anonymously said, “We know that Obama will be open to listening to the proposals provided by both sides but he doesn't have any to offer.”
Some Palestinians feel the US administration should focus more on the larger picture. PLO Executive Committee member Bassam Salhhi told The Media Line that the American administration “wants to go into details instead of the whole picture of ending the Israeli occupation. They want the two sides to discuss small matters leading to a belief that the two sides are back to negotiations,” Salhi said, hinting that the US will focus on confidence-building measures rather than on ways to end Israeli control of lands it acquired in the 1967 war. One source said he expects American pressure on Israel to call a halt to post-1967 building as such a measure, indicating it could be effective.
Another senior Palestinian official told The Media Line that Obama is considering a European initiative as the foundation for future peace talks. The British-French plan is rumored to be a revised version of the Arab Initiative, which calls for ending the conflict by normalizing relations between the entire Arab region and Israel, in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the post-1967 lands and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee issue. However, others argue that new US Secretary of State John Kerry is not keen on the European move as much as his predecessor Hillary Clinton was.
Two Palestinian envoys were in Washington last week where they briefed the US administration regarding the Palestinian stance on resuming negotiations with Israel.
Abd Al Majid Swailem, a political science instructor at Al Quds University, told The Media Line that Washington is interested in maintaining the two-state solution but not final status talks. He argued that, “The US doesn't want to see a failure but wants to delay a possible solution until the end of Obama's term which will allow the Democratic party to say during its election campaign that they reached a breakthrough.”
Swailem believes the Americans are disappointed with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's policies, but just can't talk about it.
Belief among Palestinians is that President Obama does not yet have a set agenda, but that Kerry is being counted upon for to set one. Kerry was originally supposed to visit Israel and the Palestinians during the first week of March, but deferred because of the President’s plans.
Meanwhile, in the streets of Ramallah, the news that President Obama is coming to visit was received coolly. "What will the Americans do to us? Part of the reason we are in this bad situation is because of America," Bassima Hani, 50, told The Media Line.
The planned visit also comes as tension continues to rise amid mutterings about the possibility of a third “Intifada,” albeit without the violence that typified the previous two.
Dozens have been injured in clashes with Israeli forces in West Bank cities, triggered first by a hunger strike by prisoners being held by Israel and on Saturday, the unrelated death of a detainee in another prison.
Abbas told PLO Executive Committee meeting that Israel was taking harsher steps against Palestinians, especially regarding the conditions of Palestinian detainees. He condemned the death of prisoner Arafat Jaradat, who was buried with full military honors, and called for an international probe into its circumstances.
Abbas also rejected Israeli demands that the PA take control of the protests. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has demanded that Palestinian security forces maintain order and prevent violence.The PA announced they have no intention of any violent demonstrations and do not want a third Intifada but support non-violent resistance. “The Israeli army uses live ammunition [against our people] and asks the Palestinian police to prevent clashes. The demonstrations are a response to the Israeli attacks. If there isn't a continuation of detention, there won't be demonstrations,” Abbas said in a statement. He said the Palestinian leadership doesn't want to see an escalation but rather to reach a solution to the conflict.
As a gesture to reduce tensions, Israel this week announced the release of money it collects for the Palestinians and under the terms of the Oslo Accords is supposed to transfer to Ramallah monthly. The tax and tariff revenue is used to pay the salaries of government employees.
By contrast, Israeli officials sounded more upbeat about the upcoming Obama visit. "The visit by the president here in Israel is a special occasion and a chance to demonstrate the special relationship between Washington and Jerusalem; to talk about the excellent bilateral relationship and see whether it's possible to improve that relationship,” Mark Regev, Prime Minister Netanyahu's spokesman, told The Media Line.
In synch with statements from Washington, Regev demonstrated that the Palestinians are not wrong in ruing that their issue will not be primary focus of President Obama’s 48-hours – 43 in Israel and 5 in Ramallah. “The number one issue on the agenda is the Iranian issue and the need to prevent Iran from obtaining an enriched capability. The clock is ticking. The prime minister will also speak about the situation in Syria and the possibility that if Syria fragments, its large arsenal of nonconventional weapons could fall into the hands of Hizbullah or other groups.” But, according to Regev, "We will also discuss our desire to restart negotiations with the Palestinians and to move forward.”