It is not clear whether it was by design or by accident that there is a one-month period between the scheduled date of the fourth Palestinian prisoner release by Israel and the end of the nine-month Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Regardless, Palestinians recognized that the month of April provided them with a unique opportunity to be unshackled from the commitments they made not to join UN agencies before the end of the peace talk timetable.
As Al-Monitor reported as a possibility, Palestinians on April 1 carried out their threat to join UN agencies if Israel failed to release the final 26 prisoners from the 104 that it had agreed to free in return for the Palestinian's withholding their applications. This is the second time that Israel has reneged on the release of these long-term prisoners, whose incarceration predates the Oslo Accord. Article 3 of the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum, signed in September 1999, clearly states that these prisoners are to be released.
After the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signaled its approval in a unanimous vote, PLO Chairman and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed documents to join UN agencies in a public ceremony at the Muqata in Ramallah. When completed, the process will prepare the groundwork for a possible Palestinian international lawsuit against the ongoing Israeli occupation and colonization of the lands of the state of Palestine.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proved that he is incapable of dealing with complex political pressures. Netanyahu has overreached on a number of issues, expecting the Palestinians to fold as they have so often done in the past. Abbas' move has exposed Netanyahu’s inability to make the type of politically calculated decisions that would have averted the shock that the delicate peace talks are now experiencing.
To be sure, Abbas’ political maneuver was well-calculated, and limited in scope and response to the Israeli action, or in this case inaction, regarding the prisoners. A video in which Abbas outlines the sequence of events leading up to his decision and the signing was broadcast on Palestine TV on the evening of April 1 and is available on the president’s laying. In the film, Abbas reveals that he had received nine promises that the fourth batch of prisoners would be released. He states, “The last one we were told was at noon today. The Israeli government was to meet and decide.” The Palestinian leader goes on to note that no decision was taken, and therefore he had no choice but to make the move regarding the international agencies.
Abbas says that Palestine will join 12 agencies and sign two agreements and one convention. He then asks PLO leaders for a vote on his decision and receives unanimous support and a standing ovation. He continues his speech by saying that this act is not aimed against any party and that Palestine is ready to continue talks with Israel, even that night. He asserts, “We are not using these rights against anyone, especially the US, with which we have excellent relations.”
Abbas notes that he has met US Secretary of State John Kerry 39 times and insists that Palestinians still seek a peaceful settlement. “We want to settle this conflict through peaceful negotiations,” he said, reiterating that the Palestinians will use nonviolent means to reach a “negotiated settlement that will produce an independent state on the 1967 borders and an agreed to resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem.” Abbas’ words reflect verbatim those of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
Early reactions to the Palestinian move have been extremely supportive. In a single move, Abbas has succeeded in reasserting himself locally and internationally. He has proved to be a master tactician and has managed to erase some of the recent bad publicity he has received regarding his conflict with his Fatah rival, Mohammed Dahlan.
Abbas has received something of a clean slate, with even Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh favoring the move. It has already produced a spike in support for Abbas within Palestinian circles and among the long-term prisoners whose freedom he seeks. Public support for Abbas’ negotiating tactics is reflected in one of the highest approval ratings, 59%, he has ever received. A statement from the prisoners who are supposed to be released said that the Palestinian president had “restored our national pride.”
By choosing to shake up US-led attempts to revive the peace talks, the Palestinian leadership has succeeded in walking the line between total inaction and a complete collapse of the peace talks. While US and Israeli media seem to have been caught off guard, Kerry was not. Speaking in Paris, the secretary of state reiterated what Abbas said about the peace talks continuing. “It is premature to write off the peace talks,” Kerry said.
Palestinian sources in Ramallah told Al-Monitor that they do not expect any major repercussions from the move, which they say Kerry and others were expecting. Proof of their position is that Martin Indyk, Kerry’s envoy to the region, is scheduled to be holding meetings with both sides on April 2. Palestinian expectations are that the European Union and the United States are unlikely to rethink their funding until after the end of April, when the talks are officially supposed to end if no agreement is reached to extend them.
Most analysts contacted by Al-Monitor argued that Abbas will cleverly use the month of April to improve his negotiating position, not only in terms of the prisoners but also in terms of the actual talks. The net result of the Palestinians' action is that they are free of the shackles of not joining UN agencies, but the Palestinian prisoners who would have been with their families are still in Israeli jails. At the same time, Abbas’ maneuver harms the possibility, even if remote, of the convicted Jewish American spy Jonathan Pollard spending Passover in Israel this April.
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