By Ali Sawafta and Erika Solomon
Nov 1 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s rejection of an Israeli settlement freeze as a condition for peace talks puts Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a spot.
As Abbas faces an apparent shift in the Obama administration’s diplomatic strategy and comes under U.S. pressure to relaunch peace negotiations suspended in December, here are some of the scenarios that could play out:
ABBAS TALKS NOW
Abbas is unlikely to break off negotiating contacts, at least not with U.S. special envoy George Mitchell. Were he to re-engage decisively with the Israelis at this stage, however, he could face trouble at home.
For months before a trilateral meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Abbas and his aides had said there could be no such meeting before a settlement freeze.
Abbas’s decision to attend confirmed to many that ultimately the aid-dependent Palestinian Authority has little practical choice but to keep in with international powers seen as having influence over Israel.
Turning up at the U.N. meeting, however, provided fresh reason for Abbas’s many domestic critics to condemn him, not least Islamist Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Launching negotiations with Israel right away, in spite of the row over settlements, would surely hand new political ammunition to his opponents just three months ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.
So if Abbas chooses to keep talking, it is more likely to be in the face-saving format of indirect negotiations mediated through U.S. and other international envoys.
ABBAS HOLDS OUT AGAINST TALKS
Abbas could try and hold out against resuming negotiations with Israel in the hope that the United States, where Obama has also staked considerable political capital on getting the two sides back to the table, could eventually offer him something that he could show to his home audience as a benefit.
Palestinian analysts suggest that an ideal offering would be a U.S.-drafted outline of a framework for a final agreement.
Holding out against negotiations could also improve Abbas’s electoral standing against Hamas — though it remains unclear whether the Jan. 24 election will be held in the face of Hamas rejection of the vote.
But it is also far from certain that Obama is willing or able to extract from Israel the sort of concession that Abbas would be able to present as a gain to his domestic critics.
ABBAS GOES ON REJECTING DIRECT TALKS
Palestinian analysts note that Abbas built his career as a negotiator in the shadow of the late Yasser Arafat. To go on rejecting talks indefinitely would be against his nature and also risk validating critics’ view that past negotiations have brought no benefits to the Palestinians.
Abbas could argue that turning his back on talking to Israel gives him time and space to focus on ending the Palestinian political schism between his Fatah movement and Hamas, a rift that has created a major hurdle to peace talks.
Should uncertainty about whether Abbas will negotiate with Israel drag on, some analysts fear that frustration with the stalemate could foster a resurgence of violence.
While few seem to have an appetite for a return to the bloody Intifada of a decade ago, sporadic tensions and violence, such as that seen in Jerusalem’s Old City in recent weeks, always has the potential to flare up into more serious trouble.