US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the weekend announced the impending resumption of direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel hailed the development as a significant achievement, but the Palestinians were already throwing cold water on the talks before they ever began.
Clinton told a press conference in Washington that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had been invited to the US capital in September 2 to officially relaunch direct talks, and that she believed the negotiations on a final status peace agreement could be "completed within a year."
Netanyahu's Likud Party issued a statement welcoming the final resumption of negotiations without preconditions. "It took a year and a half to persuade the international community and the Palestinians that direct dialogue is the only way to try to reach a solution to the conflict," said Likud spokesman MK Ofir Akunis. "This is further proof that when you stand up for your principles and do not give in, you can attain diplomatic achievements."
Another unnamed Likud official later told The Jerusalem Post that while Netanyahu is hoping to conclude an accord with the Palestinians, he is committed to bring any agreement to the Israeli people before signing it.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, were far less optimistic, and appeared determined to sink the talks even before Netanyahu and Abbas reach the negotiating table.
Nearly every Palestinian faction outside of Abbas' own Fatah movement slammed the decision to negotiation with Netanyahu, and accused Abbas of surrendering to American pressure. Abbas' top aides sought to reassure his Palestinian critics by insisting that if Israel continued building new Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria (the so-called "West Bank"), Abbas would pull out of the talks. The threat included Jewish housing projects on the eastern side of Jerusalem, which, despite being home to hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews, the Palestinians claim as their capital.
"Even if Israel builds one house in the settlements," the negotiations will come to an end, declared Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee member Hanna Amireh.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat added that if Israel did not extend its self-imposed 10-month settlement building freeze that is set to expire on September 26, there would be nothing to negotiate about.
"If the Israeli government decides, on 26 September, to continue to permit the submission of settlement bids, then there will be no talks," said Erekat.
It is widely believed that Netanyahu will quietly extend the building freeze in Jewish towns around Judea and Samaria in order to give talks a chance, but that construction in large Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem will continue, giving the Palestinians the opportunity they need to again sidestep an opportunity for a negotiated peace.