RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is being propelled toward a stark choice that could come as soon as next week, define his legacy and set the course for his people in a decades-old conflict with Israel.
Abbas' aides fear he's being pushed by the U.S. into dropping his conditions for negotiating with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That includes a stop in Israeli settlement construction or acceptance that the basis of a future border is Israel's frontier before it captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in a 1967 war.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is returning next week for meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu, his fifth since taking office this year. It's not clear if he'll present U.S. ground rules for negotiation at that time. The sense in Palestinian leadership circles is that there is no significant pressure on Netanyahu to adopt the framework for talks accepted by his predecessor and that a high-stakes choice cannot be delayed much longer.
At the heart of the Palestinian dilemma is that despite the American eagerness for talks and their own desire to end Israel's 46-year-old occupation, they have low expectations of negotiations with Netanyahu. Most Palestinians consider the Israeli leader a hard-line ideologue who intends to drag out the process and never agree to anything close to terms they could live with.
Israel's current leaders "never believed in the two-state solution ... and will do everything on the ground to make it impossible to achieve," said Abbas aide Nabil Shaath, a veteran negotiator with Israel.
Public opinion complicates the situation: Fifty-six percent of Palestinians oppose a return to talks under Israel's terms, said Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, citing results from a yet-to-be-published survey. Shikaki's polls are based on more than 1,200 respondents, with an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Signaling the apprehension, top Abbas aides are already working on a day-after strategy for fighting attempts to hold Abbas responsible for a failure of the U.S. initiative. And a top think tank in the West Bank has run through a dozen scenarios in the aftermath of an inadvertent collapse of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas' self-rule government, which some consider possible if the status quo continues.
Netanyahu has said he supports the idea of Palestinian statehood, but stripped of east Jerusalem and key areas of the West Bank, and with a series of restrictions — parameters the Palestinians reject and which fall far short of previous Israeli proposals under Netanyahu's predecessors.
Kerry's peace proposal is expected to include financial aid to the Palestinians, security guarantees to Israel and assurances to the Palestinians that talks will be substantive.
There were hints this week that Abbas won't budge. The president's office said members of his Fatah movement urged him not to succumb to pressure. In that meeting, Fatah also prepared for damage control, naming four senior members to devise a plan to deflect expected international blame for saying "no" to Kerry.
International Mideast envoy Tony Blair warned this week that if Kerry's mission fails, the window of opportunity for a deal "could close forever."
Such warnings have been sounded repeatedly over 20 years of intermittent negotiations, but there's a growing sense that the door may really be closing.
U.S. mediation is key to success, but presidents from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush and now Barack Obama have held off any serious push until their second terms, when they were less concerned about re-election. If Kerry fails, the next opportunity might only come around in eight years.
By that time, a partition of the land may no longer be possible. Nearly 600,000 Israelis already live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and Netanyahu has refused to stop building. Instead, there's been a record number of housing starts in settlements this year and thousands more apartments are in the pipeline, some deep in the West Bank.
The issue is deeply controversial in Israel itself, where Netanyahu critics believe partition is essential for Israel's own survival, because without it Jews will not for long be a majority in the areas Israel controls.
Last month, a group of mid-level Fatah activists, disillusioned after two decades of failed negotiations, urged Abbas to pursue a single state for Israelis and Palestinians between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River — essentially asking Israel to annex war-won lands. Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but Palestinians consider it still occupied because Israel controls access.
Palestinians must start pushing for equal rights in such a state, said Radi Jerayi, an ex- Fatah official.
Abbas has warned Israelis they might end up with a bi-national state — but that's been meant scare them into serious negotiations.
The single state idea hasn't caught on, largely because it runs counter to nationalism on both sides. Even with the lure of equal rights within the entirety of historical Palestine, only 30 percent of Palestinians would prefer that option, Shikaki said.
For Abbas, dropping the two-state option would mean conceding defeat to his nemesis, the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized Gaza from him in 2007, dismisses negotiations as foolish and wants to swallow up Israel in an Islamic state.
The Palestinians have said that without negotiations they would move against Israel at the U.N. Last year, the General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in the 1967 lines, overriding U.S. and Israeli objections and giving the Palestinians a largely symbolic victory.
Earlier this month, Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians might pursue war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court, in connection with settlement building, if negotiations don't resume.
Going to the ICC is Abbas' most popular option, even if Israel and the U.S. Congress retaliate by cutting funding to the Palestinian Authority, Shikaki said.
"Almost three-quarters (of respondents) say, go to the ICC, regardless of what happens, even if it leads to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority," Shikaki said. "It is one way they can shake the status quo, which they reject."
The self-rule government, which feeds hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as the largest employer in the West Bank, would find it hard to survive without foreign aid and millions of dollars in taxes Israel collects for the Palestinians every month.
Shikaki's think tank, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, recently hosted a dozen workshops with experts to look at the aftermath of a collapse of the self-rule government. Participants predicted tremendous poverty, mass emigration, chaos and a return to the gang rule of the previous decade.
Yet they also noted an upside, Shikaki said: "This then becomes an Israeli problem."
Laub, chief correspondent for the Palestinian territories, has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987. Daraghmeh, based in Ramallah, has covered the West Bank since 1996.