Abbas's ineffectual UDI threat

The current negotiations involving Israel and the Palestinian Authority are, if not actually dead, then certainly in a critical state exhibiting every sign of comprehensive systemic failure.

I say this in spite of the commendable optimism voiced earlier this month by Quartet representative Tony Blair, who told Sky News that direct talks between the two sides could start "within weeks."

Well of course they could. But how meaningful would they be?

The ostensible reason for the current breakdown of negotiations is said to be the refusal of the Israeli government to renew a freeze on settlement building in Judea and Samaria.

Mr Abbas has every reason to be relaxed, even smug, about the future

This had been demanded by PA president Mahmoud Abbas as a pre-condition for the resumption of negotiations and, now that negotiations have stalled, his diplomatic mission at the UN is busy promoting a resolution condemning Jewish settlement building in Jerusalem and on the West Bank.

In fact, there has been no refusal - for the simple reason that the American administration has declined to put the freeze request to the Israeli government. Be that as it may, the Ramallah rumour mill has also been busy leaking reports suggesting that, some time later this year, President Abbas will announce a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. And a number of Latin-American republics (to wit: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay) have recently announced that they recognise Palestinian independence based on the borders existing prior to the 1967 war; a similar proclamation may be expected any day from Paraguay.

As a matter of fact (you may recall) the late Yasir Arafat made a much-trumpeted declaration of Palestinian independence as long ago as November 1998, when, at a meeting in Algiers, the Palestinian National Council passed a resolution to that effect. Indeed, since that momentous and earth-shattering event it appears that no less than a hundred or so member states of the UN have issued pronouncements of one sort or another recognising Palestinian statehood.

Emboldened (it is said) by this growing international chorus of approval Mr Abbas has stood firm: he will not recognise Israel as a Jewish state; every Jewish settlement on the West Bank must be dismantled; Palestinian Arab refugees must be accorded their "right of return" to anywhere within Israel; and East Jerusalem - including the Old City- must be ceded to "Palestine" as its capital and seat of government.

On the face of it, therefore, Mr Abbas has absolutely no reason or incentive to return to the negotiating table at the present time. On the face of it, he has every reason to be relaxed, even smug, about the foreseeable future. But the facts "on the ground" hardly support such complacency. Dig a little deeper - beyond the media rhetoric - and you will soon understand why.

To begin with, no matter how many states say they recognise Palestinian independence, not one fact "on the ground" is changed as a result. The current flurry of activity south of the Panama Canal is best understood as a demonstration of Latin-American independence from its giant and economically-dominant neighbour to the north. Moreover, to recognise Palestinian independence on the basis of the pre-1967 borders is an acknowledgement of Jewish sovereignty within the 1949 armistice lines - not something that Palestinian nationalists feel at all comfortable with.

The Palestine that the PLO was founded to "liberate" is, in fact, Israel. But even Venezuela - whose Washington-bashing head of state, Hugo Chavez, noisily broke off diplomatic relations with Israel two years ago - has reaffirmed Israel's right to exist within secure borders.

Suppose that Abbas were to make a formal declaration of Palestinian independence later this year. Once again, not one fact on the ground would be changed as a result. But other problems might follow of which Mr Abbas is well aware. Would the state whose independence he might be minded to formally declare be a Fatah-controlled state or a Hamas-controlled state? Would the Hamas government of Gaza tolerate a declaration of independence that did not incorporate what it regards as its mandate to speak for the Palestinians? Somehow, I do not think so.

The most likely outcome of a UDI from Ramallah is a renewal (or rather a radical escalation) of the continuing bloody civil war between Hamas and Fatah. And while no one in his or her right mind wants this conflict to result in a Hamas victory, such a possibility would give Israel every right to intervene in Ramallah, as it did in Gaza, with devastating effect, two years ago.

    Last updated: 10:01am, January 14 2011