Abbas in dilemma over settlements

By Ben Lynfield, September 10, 2009

Israel’s approval of 450 new housing units in the settlements this week has placed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a vulnerable position, as he may have to make an embarrassing climbdown from his refusal to resume negotiations without a full settlement freeze.

Mr Abbas has for years been criticised by fellow Palestinians for ostensibly being willing to pursue talks with Israel under any conditions. However, encouraged by an apparently sympathetic Obama administration, he took an uncharacteristically tough stand this summer, with aides insisting there would be no loopholes in a settlement freeze.

“You leave a little hole for a rabbit, next there will be an elephant going through,” said former Palestinian Authority foreign minister Nabil Shaath.

But according to Israeli reports, not confirmed by Washington, the freeze being discussed with the Americans will not apply to East Jerusalem, to 2,500 units under construction on the West Bank or to public buildings.

That will make it a hard, if not impossible, sell for Mr Abbas, analysts say.

Abbas might go to Obama's peace summit without agreeing to resume talks

“He was already in a serious credibility problem after last January when his term ran out and Hamas doubted his legitimacy,” said Wadie Abu Nassar, director of the International Centre for Consultations, a political consulting firm in Haifa.

“If he went back to talks without a full freeze, Hamas would be joined by people even within Fatah saying he is not credible and not acceptable.”

This would “ruin the recent gains he made at the [Bethelehem] Fatah convention in which he blocked the deterioration in his credibility”.

However, Ghassan Khatib, director of the Palestinian Authority’s media centre in Ramallah, says it is possible that Mr Abbas will attend a summit with Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama at the opening of the UN General Assembly later this month without actually agreeing to renew peace negotiations.

“His real problem will be if the Americans invite the parties to resume negotiations. He will have trouble resisting that and if he agrees he will be doomed locally.”

Mr Abbas is trying to get Arab and European countries to lobby the administration to avoid such an invitation, Mr Khatib said.

Hamas, meanwhile, is using the reports that building in Jerusalem will continue to step up warnings that Islamic holy sites are being encroached upon. “Jerusalem and al-Aksa (mosque) are being surrounded with places raped by the Zionists,” Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council told Hamas’s Palestine Information Centre website.

Last updated: 5:13pm, September 10 2009