Monday, October 25, 2010

Much At Stake In Abbas-Netanyahu Duel

 By Jamil K. Mroue
Publisher and editor in chief
This editorial was published in Daily Star on Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mahmoud Abbas’ pointed and accurate statement Monday clarified – better late than never – that Israel’s illegal settlements represent to the Palestinians what Hamas and other similar groups represent to Israel: a central obstacle to peace.

Abbas, in forcefully rejecting Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning from one day earlier, also distinctly placed himself and the Israeli premier in the middle of a gathering storm which is either going to result in a wave of calm settling over the surrounding environment or a hurricane that will sow destruction far and wide.

After Netanyahu warned Palestinians against taking unilateral steps to seek recognition of a Palestinian state, Abbas correctly pointed out that Israel has for more than four decades been pursuing a unilateral strategy of building illegal settlements in the Occupied West Bank.
No one should find it exceptional for Abbas to throw the settlements back in Netanyahu’s face; the Israeli government certainly does not coordinate settlement construction with its Palestinian negotiating partners. Indeed, the Palestinian leadership has vainly battled against the spreading stain of the settlements where it can, among the Arab League and the UN General Assembly and their ilk, just as Israel has fought without success to eliminate Hamas and similar groups.

In addition to training the spotlight again on the unceasing settlement construction, Abbas’ comments also positioned him and Netanyahu squarely as rivals, locked in a one-on-one standoff apart from their usual entourages and mediators. This demonstrates how far the peace process has fallen in a few weeks, from direct talks to suspension to openly denigrating each other’s positions.

The only chance to bridge this gap rests in the Oval Office; alas, it will be some time after next week’s midterm elections before the White House returns whatever focus it can muster to the derailed negotiations. We should not forget about another factor crucial to the outcome of this deadlock – Iran might next month begin talks in Geneva to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program, as Avigdor Lieberman produces a report on what a nuclear Iran would mean for the Jewish state.

With those parameters clear, the future of the Middle East leaves little to the imagination. The future of the rest of the region will mirror the outcome of the Abbas-Netanyahu duel. If the diplomatic efforts in Geneva and Washington fail to bring any progress or even breathing room, the region will have to prepare for the worst. If the peace talks fail, then it is only a question of time until the ill winds swirling around Abbas and Netanyahu gather force and consume in violence the immediate environment: Jordan, Egypt, Syria and perhaps Lebanon as well.

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