Abbas chooses unpopular peace talks over UN battles


By Ali Sawafta and Noah Browning ,Reuters

RAMALLAH, West Bank — In the three years since Israelis and Palestinians last tried and failed to negotiate an agreement on dividing the land they live on, Palestinian leaders have gained little for their people. Livelihoods have crumbled and jobs have been shed as dreams of growth ran up against the realities of Israeli occupation.

Construction equipment, kicking up clouds of dust, has carved into West Bank hilltops and capped them with the red-tile roofs of Jewish settler homes by the hundreds, tightening Israel’s grip on land that Palestinians want for a future state. That backdrop, and the threat of even harsher economic isolation, explain why President Mahmoud Abbas has embarked on an unpopular course that some even members of his inner circle see as pointless: returning to talks with Israel in search of a peace agreement and statehood. A second U.S.-sponsored meeting took place in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Among Palestinians there is widespread pessimism over Abbas’ chances of persuading the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abandon its settlement program and hand back land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Abbas had an alternative option: to capitalize on the Palestinians’ defiant accession to nonmember statehood at the United Nations last year, and confront Israel there and at the International Criminal Court.

But for now he is holding that option in reserve, aware that pursuing it would bring down U.S. and Israeli wrath on his West Bank-based government, prompting the Jewish state to cut off vital customs revenues and Washington to sever aid. In one sign of restraint, he pointedly avoided using new privileges at the U.N. by refraining from submitting to its cultural body UNESCO’s preservation list an ancient village threatened with damage by Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank. “You can go and write an article saying I’m wrong, and that I should have gone to the U.N. instead,” Abbas lectured a group of skeptical local journalists last month, explaining why he had opted for a return to peace talks. “But as the president, I have responsibilities: I have to think about salaries, about an economic siege,” he said.