Accompanied by cheers from many jubilant Palestinians, and their vows to keep up the peaceful struggle until the establishment of an independent state, Israeli forces cleared six military bases and areas estimated at 5 percent of the West Bank. While the freeing of these places in Palestine is a considerable achievement, the fact is that the recent pullback on Jan. 5 constituted another defeat for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its negotiation strategy.
The Jan 5 withdrawal was to have taken place on Nov 15. A disagreement however, arose after Israel insisted on, as always, implementing its own interpretation of the agreement. Palestinians, who asserted that the areas where Israelis proposed to clear were not of strategic value for movement in the West Bank, hoped for a compromise. 50 days later, no compromise was made; Israel pulled out of the same areas it proposed; Palestinians cheered the pull-out and claimed a victory, and the United States commended both parties for their patience and wisdom.
The PA, under constant pressure caused by Israel's obstacles, Arab governments' fragmentation and internal opposition, claimed that its acceptance of Israel's version of the withdrawal was inspired by a similar Israeli concession. The agreement, which paved the way for the withdrawal to please the Palestinian side momentarily, contained a promise whereas Israel will be open to Palestinian requests in sketching the map for the Jan 20 proposed Israeli redeployment of an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank.
Why would the PA honor the Israeli promise, when Israel has proven time and again not to keep its promises? It is their fear that any further talk delays in the Palestinian-Israeli front, accompanied by slow but steady progress in the Syrian front, would harm the already shaky ground on which Palestinians stand?
Israel's delay in the talks is a successfully tested political strategy; for Palestinians, delay is a reminder of their lack of options. Time and again, Yasser Arafat has stressed his rejection of Israel's intentional obstruction of the negotiations. While Israel is willing and able to afford inventing reasons to cripple the progress of the talks -- delay for Israel means draining Palestinians patience, cultivating thereafter more and more concessions -- the PA simply cannot afford that delay, as social dissatisfaction is on a steady rise and the economic situation is experiencing its worst performances ever.
Both sides have pledged that by Feb. 13 a framework for a final peace treaty will be formulated. The chief Israeli negotiator, Oded Eran, who spoke with enthusiasm that the Feb 13 framework could be met, said that if an agreement was not reached by mid-February, "then a few weeks later." That relaxing Israeli approach has always been a very successful tool in weakening the Palestinian side, which is aware of the political and social consequences to which further delays could lead.
Palestinians, besides their fear of Israel's deliberate obstacles, are also aware that their refusal to sign on Israel's interpretation of the agreement puts little or no pressure on the Israeli government. On the contrary, when the Israeli negotiators act with firmness, the right wing Israeli opposition commends and approves of that refusal to submit to the PA's demands. Furthermore, Israel's firmness is more than before a justifiable one. After all, its security is the one recognized internationally as being under constant threat. It also appears to be the one enduring the hardship of negotiations with two parties at once.
Palestinians are standing lonely on a stage where Israel is dominant, armed with nothing but unimplemented UN resolutions and obscure Oslo agreements and a few dishonored Israeli promises. The United States government continues to carry the same soft perception of Israel and continues to maintain its harshness and suspicion of Palestinians. Thus, it comes as no surprise that fifty days later, Palestinians break under Israeli pressure.
Although the one-sided peace compromise has been repeated, the latest Palestinian compromise is a dangerous one. Both sides are only one withdrawal away from formulating the final status peace treaty. The recent Palestinian concession has sent another assuring message to Israel that Palestinians are still vulnerable, fragile, defenseless and as always, ready to crack. Yet bargaining the 5 percent or the 6.1 percent withdrawal will not be as consequential as compromising with the future of Jerusalem, refugees' right of return, water, settlements and borders. The failure of the PA to obtain a meaningful agreement means the creation of the same similar unjust circumstances that led to popular Palestinian revolts in the past.
Besides meeting the Israeli firmness with similar firmness, calling on the United States to pressure Israel, and continue to say "no", Palestinians are left with no choice but to suspend the talks. On the other hand, while rejection appears to be a poor political tool, in such difficult realities, especially if backed by patience, endurance and national unity, suspension may indeed compose a long term winning strategy.