RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to show that he has alternatives if U.S.-mediated talks with Israel break off Tuesday, the deadline for agreeing on a possible extension.
In recent days, Abbas has revived attempts to reconcile with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized Gaza from him in 2007. He has also hinted he might dismantle his self-rule government and saddle Israel — formally responsible as the occupying power — with the huge financial and logistical burden of taking care of more than 4 million Palestinians.
It's not clear if Abbas is building leverage for last-minute pressure on Israel to agree to his terms for extending the negotiations, or if he is genuinely changing political strategy. However, the coming days are crucial in deciding which path he will take — political confrontation with the U.S. and Israel, an extension of peace talks or a return to a period of no negotiations.
WHAT'S THE TIMELINE?
Wednesday — Officials from Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement announced a new deal to overcome the Palestinian political split. An interim unity government is to be formed within five weeks, followed by general elections in December at the earliest. The rivals failed to implement such agreements in the past, and obstacles to reconciliation remain in place.
Saturday and Sunday — Abbas chairs a meeting of the Palestinian Central Council, a body of 100-plus members who convene every few years to sign off on important decisions. The council could be asked to approve general elections and Abbas' next moves in relation to Israel.
Tuesday — The target date for an agreement on the outlines of a peace deal or on extending the talks. The current negotiations began July 29, under U.S. pressure, with both sides promising at the time they would stick with the talks for at least nine months.
WHAT HAS BEEN ACHIEVED?
Very little. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought a deal on core issues, including a border between Israel and a state of Palestine and security arrangements. Palestinian officials say no progress has been made and that Israel never presented a border proposal.
Earlier this month, the talks were on the verge of collapse, after Israel failed to keep a promise to release the final of four groups of long-held Palestinian prisoners. Abbas responded by signing letters to join 15 international conventions, despite a promise that he would refrain from seeking further recognition for Palestine for the duration of the negotiations. Palestine was accepted by the U.N. General Assembly as a non-member observer state in 2012.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF EXTENDING THE TALKS?
Slim, but still possible. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continue to meet.
Abbas says he will only agree to an extension if Israel releases the fourth group of prisoners, freezes construction in Jewish settlements in the war-won West Bank and east Jerusalem and pledges to focus on border talks in the next three months. Israel reportedly is considering releasing the prisoners, but wants to deport some of them and is offering only a limited slowdown in settlement construction.
IS A MAJOR CRISIS LOOMING AFTER TUESDAY?
Not necessarily. Abbas said this week that even if negotiations are halted, it "doesn't prevent contacts between us" and that Israeli-Palestinian security coordination in the West Bank will continue. That suggests he wants to avoid a crisis with Israel and the U.S., provided Israel keeps transferring the monthly $100 million in taxes and customs it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The funds, withheld temporarily by Israel in the past as a punitive measure, help keep Abbas' self-rule government afloat.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES TO NEGOTIATIONS?
Abbas' preferred strategy is to negotiate Palestinian statehood with Israel and maintain close ties with the U.S., but most Palestinians are disillusioned with negotiations in their current format, following two decades of failure. In recent days, Abbas has hinted at possible course corrections — reconciling with Hamas, seeking further international recognition of a state of Palestine or "handing back the keys" to Israel by dismantling his Palestinian Authority. All three would have serious repercussions not just for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also for Abbas.
The rivals reached reconciliation agreements in the past, but lacked the political will to implement them. It seems unlikely the deal announced Wednesday will fare any better. Both sides are entrenched in their respective territories — Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in 38 percent of the West Bank — with their own governments and security forces. Hamas was badly weakened by the ouster of its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt last year. Yet there's no sign Hamas would give Abbas a say in running Gaza as a way out of its predicament.
Any real progress toward reconciliation would strain Abbas' ties with the West, which considers Hamas a terror organization. He could lose millions of dollars in foreign aid and make a resumption of negotiations with Israel even more unlikely. And Netanyahu could use an Abbas-Hamas alliance to discredit Abbas: On Wednesday, he alleged Abbas prefers peace with Hamas to a deal with Israel.
DISMANTLING THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY?
Abbas told Israeli journalists this week that "if the talks fail completely," he will ask Israel to take over the Palestinian Authority, which was established in the mid-1990s, as part of interim peace deals. It was meant to oversee five years of transition to a final agreement, which Palestinians assumed would mean statehood. But a deal was not reached, and the international community has supported the self-rule government financially ever since. Critics say this arrangement allowed Israel to perpetuate its military occupation without bearing the costs.
Palestinians also benefited, including senior Fatah officials enjoying perks of power. The salaries of tens of thousands of civil servants feed about 1 in 4 Palestinians in the West Bank. A dismantling of the government would sharply drive up unemployment and poverty.
SEEKING FURTHER INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION
Officials say a state of Palestine can seek membership in 63 international agencies, treaties and conventions as a result of the U.N. recognition vote in 2012. Abbas aides say membership applications would be made in four stages, leaving the most provocative from Israel's perspective — accession to the International Criminal Court — to last. Palestine could potentially seek war crimes charges against Israel at the ICC for continued settlement building.
Palestinian officials have said they are not rushing down that road, but that each step depends on Israeli policies.
Laub reported from Jericho, West Bank.