Middle East peace deal: Mahmoud Abbas’s choice – membership of the UN, or extend the negotiations

Ben Lynfield explains how a deal with Israel could yet be achieved

Jerusalem

Amid a growing atmosphere of crisis following the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, hopes were raised on Friday that the situation was by no means irreparable with neither side having yet taken action that would mark a final break from the negotiating process.

Palestinian analysts said it was likely that President Mahmoud Abbas would agree to extend peace negotiations beyond the 29 April deadline if he gained sufficient concessions from Israel to justify such a course. But the centrist Israeli politician Yair Lapid blamed Mr Abbas for the crisis. “Abbas should know that at this pointhis demands are acting against him. No Israeli will negotiate with him for any price,” he said.

The troubled peace process broke down this week over Israel’s failure to release a total of 104 prisoners in accordance with its commitment when the talks were launched last July. Mr Abbas responded by signing applications for Palestinian admission to 15 international treaties and conventions, something he had pledged to refrain from doing in exchange for the prisoner releases.

Israel, in turn, viewed the move as tantamount to ostracising it and therefore as incompatible with the negotiating process.

On Friday a downbeat US Secretary of State John Kerry, who had led Washington’s efforts to secure an elusive peace deal, appeared resolved to re-evaluate the US’s role in future talks. “It is regrettable that in the last few days both sides have taken steps that are not helpful,” he said. “There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unable to take constructive steps.”

However, Mr. Abbas is seen as not having closed the door on a deal to extend the negotiations because he is refraining from applying to the organization Israel is most worried about-the International Criminal Court-where Palestinians could advance complaints against the Israeli army and Israel's illegal building of settlements in the occupied West Bank.

On Thursday, Palestinian officials said they were setting as preconditions for extending the talks not only the release of the last batch of prisoners but also Israeli recognition that the Palestinian capital will be in occupied East Jerusalem. They will demand a total cessation of all construction at the settlements and the freeing of more than 1,000 additional prisoners. But some analysts question whether Mr Abbas will in fact adhere to all of these demands.

He must now choose between two options: expanding the drive for recognition in international organisations or coming to an agreement to extend the peace negotiations. The first course means moving away from talks that brought him little more than Israeli settlement expansion and nothing to show his people in the way of tangible gains towards statehood. There are major problems with this strategy, though. White House opposition to it could thwart a Palestinian bid for UN member state status. An even greater problem, as the Israeli political scientist Menachem Klein noted yesterday, is that gaining membership in international bodies “can be a symbolic gain but it won’t help the situation on the ground”.

In the view of Talal Awkal, a columnist for Al-Ayyam newspaper, Mr Abbas is still interested in extending the negotiations. “I don’t think we are seeing revolutionary change; he sees his main option as to go again to the negotiations,” he said. “His decisions this week are no more than messages to the Israelis and Americans that he has demands.” But there is no assurance that the message will be acted upon in Jerusalem and Washington.

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