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Tough decision

Jan 14,2014 - Last updated at Jan 14,2014

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas knows that the time has come for him to make the toughest decision of his long political career.

He has been involved in peace negotiations with Israel for more than 20 years, with little to show for.

Times have changed since he first engaged the Israelis in secret peace talks in Oslo, Norway, to produce what looked then like a historic deal to end decades of conflict. But the core issues have not changed; Israel’s leaders reneged on that deal and held president Yasser Arafat hostage in his Ramallah headquarters more than 10 years ago, until his death.

Arafat’s successor, Abbas, was viewed as a moderate and there were suspicions among his Palestinian critics that he would accept what Arafat had rejected at Camp David in 2000. But he held on, negotiating with Ariel Sharon, then Ehud Olmert and now with Benjamin Netanyahu, through US interlocutors.

Abbas was always under pressure to resume peace talks without conditions. His demand that Israel freeze settlement activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank was rebuffed by Netanyahu.

The first term of President Barak Obama’s presidency brought some hope to the Palestinians. But Obama’s attempt to corner Netanyahu and produce a historic deal fell through. For a while, the Palestinians were out of options, until John Kerry took over from Hillary Clinton and vowed to revive peace talks.

Today, and after six months of mostly secret negotiations, Kerry says the two sides are close to signing a new understanding on final status issues.

He appears to be the only one who believes that a deal can be reached. Netanyahu is as elusive as ever and Abbas knows that he is the one expected to make the big compromises.

Little is known about Kerry’s set of proposals, but Palestinian reaction to them has been tepid.

On Saturday, Abbas told supporters that he would never recognise Israel as a Jewish state, nor will he accept a deal that does not consider East Jerusalem the capital of the future Palestinian state.

He said he would never abandon the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees, nor will he accept the presence of Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley.

Israel’s hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was quoted as saying on Sunday that Israel must accept Kerry’s proposal for a framework agreement with the Palestinians since “any other proposal from the international community won’t be as good”.

He was quoted earlier as saying that Israel rejects the right of return, will not withdraw from East Jerusalem or the Jordan Valley. Moreover, he said that his party will never support an agreement that involves an Israeli surrender of territory inside the 1967 lines where Arabs predominate.

He was referring to a suggestion that in proposed land swaps Israel will relinquish areas in the Galilee where 300,000 Arab Israelis reside as part of Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state.

Kerry’s controversial proposals have also been questioned by Jordan, a keen observer of bilateral negotiations.

For the first time ever, Jordan said that it would back a deal as long as it meets the conditions of its highest national interests.

There have been warnings by prominent Jordanian officials against a “secret” deal that could be struck between Abbas and Netanyahu undermining Jordanian interests, especially when it comes to refugees, borders and East Jerusalem.

Palestinian officials were quick to respond that Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are coordinating positions and see eye to eye on all issues.

Kerry will be back in the region soon and will exert pressure on Abbas to embrace his proposals.

The Palestinians were told last week that Kerry will not point the finger at Israel if his mediation efforts collapse. There were threats that the US and the European Union may suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority if talks fail.

Abbas will have to rise to the occasion. What Kerry is offering is nothing more than hardline Israeli conditions and demands. It is a humiliating deal that aims at liquidating the Palestinian cause once and for all.

His options are few and difficult. If he accepts, he will go down in history as the leader who sold out his people and their inalienable rights. If he rejects the deal, he faces a fate similar to Arafat’s, at least in the political sense.

Abbas can always fight US pressure if he can count on Arab support. He can carry out previous threats to disband the Palestinian Authority and declare the West Bank an Israeli- occupied territory.

He can take his case back to the United Nations and end America’s monopoly on peace negotiations.

Abbas must make bold decisions because the stakes have never been higher for the Palestinians.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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