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Abbas has to make tough decisions

By: Osama Al Sharif, Special to Gulf News

08.10.2010

Several days ago the leader of the Israeli opposition Tzipi Livni said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "must choose the real long-term interests of Israel rather than his own personal political interests."

She was commenting on Netanyahu's refusal to extend the colony freeze moratorium which prompted the Palestinians to carry out their threat to walk away from direct talks barely a month after they were ceremoniously resumed in Washington.
 
Livni, head of the Kadima party, is absolutely right in her assessment. Netanyahu is more willing to appease his ultra-right coalition partners in order to keep his government alive rather than protect the long-term interests of Israel by reaching a historic deal with the Palestinians that would end decades of acrimony and injustice.
 
The Palestinians, who are under US pressure to stay put even after the Israeli decision, have decided that giving in now would jeopardise the final outcome of the negotiations. They are right too. To negotiate while Israel expands colonies and creates new ones means that the Palestinians will have to accept a de facto situation on the ground; one that excludes occupied East Jerusalem and adjoining colonies from any territorial deal. It also undermines Palestinian demands on borders, sovereignty and right of return, among others.
 
The Arab League, which is meeting in Libya Saturday to decide whether Palestinians should continue to negotiate or not, is facing its toughest test yet. Most likely it will leave it up to the Palestinians to make the final decision. In recent years the Palestinian issue has become a political hot potato, with President Mahmoud Abbas passing the ball to Arab leaders only to find himself on the receiving end again.
 
This time the decision will be detrimental to all. If Arabs and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) decide to walk away from talks then they would have to adopt an alternative approach. Should they decide to take their case to the UN Security Council or an international court, they should be ready to accept the political consequences. They will have to face an angry United States which will side with Israel. The question that follows is what then?
 
One cannot help but think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached a defining moment. The international community, which is the last resort for the Palestinians, will only pay them lip service as victims, but nothing more.
In the absence of a political formula sponsored by the United States, the Palestinians have little room for manoeuvre. Or do they? They can still achieve national reconciliation, reform and expand the PLO and launch a massive public civil disobedience campaign in the Occupied Territories — not a militant intifada.
 
They may have other choices too. But failure of the peace process as we know it today will also be expensive for the Israelis in the long term. Netanyahu will have to face ultra-nationalist and religious parties who will make an aggressive bid for power.
 
As much as this seems to be a nightmare for Palestinian nationalists, it must be recognised as a logical outcome of current Israeli politics. On the other hand, if ultra-nationalists take over in Israel their success will only be temporary.
Ensuring a pure Jewish state, whether in 1948 Israel or across the Green Line, is a demographic impossibility. Aside from ethnic cleansing, stepping over more than five million Palestinians does not seem likely. The only way out of such a conundrum will be the creation of a bi-national state in historical Palestine.
 
Netanyahu has never provided answers to these existential questions. He is living in the moment, but by ignoring the long-term consequences of his government's policies he is underlining the fact that while a two-state solution may now be impossible to achieve, a pure Jewish state is also impossible to maintain.
 
Extremist route
If a negotiated settlement cannot be realised today because of Israeli intransigence and acquiescence to extremists within the political establishment, then it will be difficult to maintain the status quo for a long time. Colony expansion and the forced evacuation of Arabs from occupied East Jerusalem will lead to Palestinian despair and extremism.
 
It will once again become a classic struggle between the occupied and the occupier. The only way for the Israeli extremists to win is to subjugate the Palestinians and evict them from their homeland. On the other hand the only alternative left for the Palestinians will be to resist in order to survive. It is a high-risk game for either party.
 
It is at this juncture that the United States and the rest of the world must step in to avert a new catastrophe in Palestine. The regional repercussions will be tremendous and will lead to new wars.
 
Change will have to happen inside Israel and Netanyahu will have to see that his current policy only strengthens the extremists who will continue to dictate additional demands. The long-term interests of Israel are in danger.
 
At one point Netanyahu will realise this and it will be up to him to choose. He has never been a historical leader capable of taking major decisions like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. But he finds himself in a position where his true calibre will be tested. The coming few days will testify to that.
 
Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Jordan.