Newly assertive Palestine will test the strength of Obama’s convictions

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by James Maxwell

Barack Obama’s assertion last week that any future settlement between Israel and Palestine must be based on the borders established before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was met by Tel Aviv with what can only be described as synthetic fury.

Despite the President’s call for a renewed drive for peace based on significant Israeli concessions, Benjamin Netanyahu – who visited the White House on Friday – has good reason to believe that Washington will not impose any sanctions on the Jewish state even if it continues building in the Occupied Territories.

For more than two decades the US has given remarkable latitude to Israel to pursue its expansionist agenda.

Bill Clinton paid no more than lip-service to Palestinian demands for independence. At the Camp David negotiations in 2000, he intimated full statehood could be achieved but did nothing to force Israel‘s hand. Three years later George W. Bush brokered the Aqaba agreement which included a pledge from Ariel Sharon to dismantle West Bank outposts which today remain largely intact.

Obama is now playing the same cynical game – but his speechifying only goes so far in disguising America‘s stubborn loyalty to Israel, with which Palestinians finally seem to have lost all patience

Earlier this month Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas met with Hamas chief Khaleed Mashaal in Cairo to sign a potentially game-changing reconciliation pact, bringing to an end five years of bloody internecine conflict between the two factions.

Abbas said the pact turned forever a “black page of division” in recent Palestinian history and suggested that it had laid the foundation for a more unified Arab challenge to ongoing Israeli encroachments.

Israel of course fully understands the significance of the deal. Netanyahu responded by describing it as a “victory for terrorism”, immediately convening a meeting of his security cabinet and cancelling the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

This time, however, it is unlikely the Israeli prime minister’s aggressive posturing will be enough to provoke a fresh dispute between Palestine’s secular and Islamist movements.

Abbas signed the unity agreement even though Hamas refused to abandon its constitutionally enshrined objection to Israel’s existence. Until it does, Israel and the US say Hamas cannot participate in peace talks. Yet, although it is not an explicit condition of the text, the agreement could well result in a single Palestinian delegation with representatives from both Fatah and Hamas attending the next round of negotiations.

Following the publication earlier this year by Wikileaks of confidential documents which show, among other things, that the leaders of the Fatah controlled PA were prepared to abandon any meaningful opposition to illegal settlements, Abbas has been looking for an opportunity to re-establish his credibility on the Palestinian street. Offering Mashaal – whose radical credentials are strong – a seat at the table, face to face with Netanyahu, represents such an opportunity.

The Palestinians will use what little leverage they have to call Obama’s bluff. How serious is he about peace? What kind of pressure is he willing to exert on Israel? To what extent will he allow the hard-line Netanyahu to dictate the terms of discussions? If Obama buckles and refuses to force the Israelis to sit with Hamas he will look weak, his commitment to peace threadbare. In order to live up to his own rhetoric, he has to make clear to Israel the new reality.

The PA has another ace up its sleeve. Saeb Erekat, Fatah’s chief negotiator, has indicated that Ramallah is prepared to unilaterally pursue Palestinian statehood later this year in the event Israel fails to halt illegal settlement construction.

There is a good chance it will win majority support for such a move from the UN General Assembly, but in order for statehood to be formally conferred it would also need the backing of the Security Council. The US has not yet said it will use its veto.

Again, Obama will look weak if he gives in to Israeli pressure to deny Palestinian independence. He will also look profoundly hypocritical.

He couched his speech last week in the terms of the Arab Spring: “We have witnessed an extraordinary change take place in the Middle East and North Africa”, he said. “Square by square; town by town; country by country; the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights…And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security; history and faith”.

Developments in Palestine cannot be divorced from the democratic uprising sweeping the region. Neither Fatah in the West Bank nor Hamas in Gaza are immune to the popular discontent of ordinary Palestinians. The new found assertiveness of the PA – which has proved itself an ineffective vehicle for the realisation of Palestinian’s democratic aspirations – suggests that it is nervous about becoming the latest victim of grassroots revolution.

Obama knows that in adopting a more confrontational tone to Israel and accelerating the march to statehood the PA is reflecting the attitudes and opinions of Palestinians at large. To simply dismiss them at the bidding of Tel Aviv would prove once and for all that Washington is no friend to Arab democracy. Netanyahu, on the other hand, won’t think twice about dismissing them. But then he knows that time is not on his side: if and when Arab democracy arrives, it will almost certainly be no friend to Israel.