Israeli politicians were up in arms this week over the stated intention of the Palestinian Authority unilaterally to declare an independent state in the near future.
Unilateral steps on the Palestinian side will be met by similar moves from Israel, they ominously warned, hinting at possible annexations of parts of the West Bank, as they did in east Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967. Such a declaration, they promised, would mean an end to any diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
The exchange of threats is yet another sign of total breakdown in negotiations between the two sides over the last year, but there is little chance that the Palestinians will actually carry out their threat. For a start, such a declaration of independence necessitates a degree of unity within the Palestinian people that is currently unimaginable, due to the ongoing bloody Hamas-Fatah feud.
In addition, if past experience is anything to go by, the timid Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, will hesitate and hesitate some more, until other events overtake him and everyone forgets about going it alone. Besides, the Palestinians have used similar threats in the past. Twenty-one years ago in Algiers they even went ahead and declared independence, changing nothing.
But the fact that the Palestinians are resorting to this tactic now — even though it is probably a bluff — and even enquiring whether the UN Secretary General will accept their virtual state as a member, is not insignificant.
It is the latest and clearest symptom of the embattled position of the PA leadership, a position in which it finds itself as a result of its own mistakes — but also to a large degree thanks to the total failure of American diplomacy since Barack Obama took over the reins in the Oval Office.
The first verifiable panic signal from Mr Abbas came when he had to be almost physically dragged to attend the joint meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Obama in September.Normally, a Palestinian leader would have been overjoyed by the degree of legitimacy conferred upon him by a presidential summit. But Mr Abbas felt, with some justification, that by attending he would be strengthening his internal rivals, who accuse him of selling out to Israel and America.
The spin last month regarding his intention to resign, and the eventual announcement that he would not be seeking re-election (though when the next Palestinian elections are to be held is anyone’s guess) were the next signal. And now he is going for broke with the unilateral declaration of independence.
He has painted himself in to a corner. By insisting upon an Israeli commitment to a total freeze of settlement activity as a precondition to negotiations, he has succeeded only in freezing any prospect of talks for the foreseeable future.
Mr Netanyahu’s government seems remarkably stable for now, and it will remain so as long as he does not publicly give in to the demands.
But he was encouraged to stand in that corner by the US. President Obama, backed up by State Secretary Hilary Clinton and their personal envoy, George Mitchell, started off the latest round of diplomacy by publicly demanding Israel freeze all settlements buildings.
Secretary Clinton went as far as to deny agreements between Israel and the previous administration that allowed Israel to continue building within the existing “settlement blocs”.
Mr Netanyahu moved in their direction, though certainly not all the way, at least not publicly, and they amended their demands, talking instead of “restraining” building instead of “freezing” it, and acknowledging that the issue of the settlements should not be a precondition for negotiations.
But for Mr Abbas, it was too late. He was already critically damaged in the Palestinian and Arab arenas for his about-face over the referral of the Goldstone Report to the UN. Sitting down with the Israelis after demanding all-or-nothing over the settlements, he fear, will lose him his last shred of credibility with his people. Hence the desperate moves. Mr Obama has abandoned him on the firing-line.