Opinion: Palestinians Tone Things Down, But Why?

This past week a high-ranking Palestinian delegation hand-delivered a letter from President Mahmoud Abbas to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In turn, Netanyahu promised a response letter in two weeks. The Palestinians made a point to say that the meeting wasn’t for negotiations, which they have yet to renew.

Considering how far opposed the Palestinians have seemed to talking in recent months, what the Palestinians said—and did not say—publicly regarding the letter exchange hints they don’t want to look like the hindrance to renewed talks. But why?

The joint statement released after Tuesday’s meeting was interesting to say the least. That the sides managed to agree on saying that both parties are “committed to achieving peace” is noteworthy. It’s a sentiment that hasn’t been heard from the West Bank in a while.

The Palestinians have been repeatedly blasting Israel—at the United Nations, in public statements and in the media. Their handling of the discussions with Israel in January in Jordan was contradictory at best. Now, they are willing to say Israel is “committed to achieving peace”?

Also interesting is the lack of focus on the settlement issue in the official Palestinian news agency’s report on Saeb Erekat’s comments about their letter. WAFA’s English-language report noted “settlement activities” in passing, but stopped short of explicitly demanding a settlement freeze before talks can renew. That has been a nonstarter for Israel after their last settlement freeze was almost ignored by the Palestinians.

The New York Times reported that demand to halt settlements is in fact in the letter, but the official Palestinian English media didn’t highlight that. Interesting.

The date “1967” in reference to borders didn’t even get an explicit mention in the English or Arabic version of the WAFA article. The recognition by Israel of those lines is another precondition that has been a nonstarter for Israel, who would rather not make too many concessions before negotiations even begin. Again, The New York Times reported that the 1967 lines are mentioned in the letter. Yet there is caution in making a public declaration.

Instead, the WAFA report’s focus was on the release of prisoners. That’s a concession that’s much easier for Israel swallow in order to restart the peace talks, although they won’t put real terrorists back on the streets. I don’t know if settlements and the 1967 lines were mentioned more prominently in Arabic to the Palestinian populace, and they obviously were leaked to the international media. But the official image presented to the English-speaking world was different from what it has been.

Further, a blog from The Los Angeles Times said the letter—at the behest of the US—took out a threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority (PA). That is something of a nightmare scenario for Israel, who would be given de facto civic and security authority over all the Palestinians in the West Bank.

That doesn’t mean the Palestinians are patching everything up. Erekat went so far as to threaten unilateral diplomatic action if Israel responds negatively to the letter, and the WAFA website is still full of invective and negative news reports on Israel. The New York Times also said that Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad was not at the meeting, which he had been expected to attend. For someone whose name means peace in Arabic, that’s ironic.

Still, the careful public image and tone was a contrast to recent history. So why? The Los Angeles Times noted the process could be a last chance before another unilateral diplomatic push—which the Palestinians tried last year at the UN. If so, trying to make it look like they are “giving peace a chance” could be a political ploy by the Palestinians to win sympathy and support internationally.

Play nice now, so it’s possible to play hardball later. It’s duplicitous, and it appears to be exactly what’s happening.

The West’s actions showed last year in the UN Security Council that they realize that true peace has to be mutual and that Israel’s security concerns are important enough for the process to be negotiated—rather than imposed.

If they want real peace to have any chance of happening, they need to remember that sentiment in the months ahead.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, April 20, 2012)