RAMALLAH – Chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat believes Palestinians are politically in their strongest position ever in their decades-long conflict with the Israelis.
There also appears to be growing consensus and confidence in both Palestinian and Arab circles that the U.S. administration could be offering more than just lip-service to Palestinian independence aspirations this time around.
In the past the Arabs, and the Palestinians in particular, have accused the U.S. of being biased towards Israel.
Previous peace deals and agreements signed over the years, supporting a two-state solution, and an end to illegal Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank, came to naught.
Instead, Israel raced ahead with building new settlements, and enlarging hundreds of existing settlements and outposts on Palestinian land in the occupied territory.
"The time for playing games is over. No more delaying tactics, no more stalling, no more excuses. It is time for action. Ceasing settlement building is not a Palestinian pre-condition; it is an Israeli obligation. These are terms that Israel has previously committed to," Erekat told IPS.
"We have been assured by (U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George) Mitchell that the U.S. administration will support the legitimate rights of the Palestinians," Erekat said. "(U.S. President Barack) Obama too has reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution and a halt to settlement building."
The Palestinian negotiator stated earlier during the week that the Israeli government’s attempts to evade its previous commitments through "haggling and playing with words" was something the international community should not accept.
"Those who are interested in saving peace and achieving the two-state solution know it can’t be achieved if the Israeli government continues with its policy of closures, incursions, and targeted assassinations," said Erekat.
Even the militant Islamic resistance organization Hamas, which is a bitter foe of the PA, and controls the Gaza Strip after it routed PA forces there in June 2007, has responded somewhat positively, albeit with reservations, to the latest U.S. moves.
Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas politburo chief in exile in Damascus, said he was encouraged by Obama’s "new, wise language" but cautioned that "the test is not in the language, it will be in how the decisions are translated on the ground."
Meshaal also expressed concern about U.S. vagueness in regard to what territory a future Palestinian state would comprise, the return of Palestinian refugees, and East Jerusalem as a future Palestinian capital.
The Hamas leader further questioned Obama’s decision to begin dialogue with the Iranians without any preconditions while simultaneously refusing to open talks with Hamas until it met certain criteria set by the U.S.
Samir Awad, a political scientist from Birzeit University in the West Bank, says he does see some reason for hope following Mitchell’s visit, but also warned of not being sucked in by U.S. rhetoric.
"What really matters is deeds not words. We have to wait and see what transpires from Netanyahu’s address on Sunday. Whether he will agree to cease settlement activity altogether and commit to a Palestinian state," Awad told IPS.
"My guess is that some kind of compromise on the settlement issue will be reached where Israel will agree to freeze construction in some settlements.
"In other settlements the U.S. might well agree to settlement enlargement, especially in those settlements which will be incorporated into Israel. Whether the PA will accept this remains to be seen," Awad told IPS.
The PA has vowed it will not continue peace negotiations unless there is a complete freeze on all settlement construction.
Mitchell did not present a timetable for renewed talks between Israel and the PA, but merely said both parties must meet their obligations under the road map blueprint of 2003.
The Palestinian understanding is that the U.S. will present a preliminary plan in July.
Moshe Maoz, professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, sees a Palestinian state in the pipeline.
"I see the establishment of some kind of demilitarized state. This is something Israel insists on," Maoz told IPS.
"Where there will be strong disagreement, and here the Americans will have to step in to enforce some kind of compromise, is control over the West Bank’s borders and its airspace," added Maoz.
Netanyahu also faces domestic opposition to his tough policies before he delivers his Sunday peace plan.
Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni warned that Netanyahu’s continued behavior could cause the U.S. to withdraw its support for Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has also been urging Netanyahu to accept an independent Palestinian state.
Barak expressed support for "the road map which clearly states that the conflict must be resolved on the principle of two states for two peoples. If such a solution fails, there will be only one political entity from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean – the state of Israel.
"Under such a scenario," he said, "if the Palestinians have the right to vote, it will no longer be a Jewish state but a bi-national state. And if they don’t have the right to vote, it will be an apartheid regime."
(Inter Press Service)