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Déjà Vu All Over Again?

If the United States succeeds in getting Palestinian President Abbas to agree to direct peace talks, will Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reciprocate?

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Inter Press Service

"If you come to a fork in the road, take it." Sometimes, the nonsensical quote of the legendary New York Yankees baseball catcher Yogi Berra has a real message. It can pointedly be applied to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on peace with the Palestinians.

The Israeli leader has been demanding that the Palestinians move from indirect "proximity" talks to direct peace negotiations, also under the auspices of the United States. Time and time again, ever since the start of the six- month proximity talks, it has been his insistent message.

But, now that it seems special U.S. presidential envoy Senator George Mitchell is about to succeed in getting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take up the Netanyahu challenge, the big question is whether Netanyahu himself is ready to take one of the forks — the one which would lead to a comprehensive peace agreement.

A Palestinian state within two years based on the 1967 borders and a full peace deal between the two states is the declared goal of the U.S. and its allies in the Quartet that provides the international umbrella for Israeli- Palestinian peacemaking.

Over the weekend senior officials in the Obama Administration have been letting it be known that Abbas will announce his readiness to enter into the direct talks "within days". Only some minor details needed to be ironed out, the officials added.

Until now the Palestinians had steadfastly resisted. But, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, tells IPS in an exclusive telephone interview from Amman, Jordan, "We want to be in full peace talks, we've always wanted to be in talks. The big question is do we know if Netanyahu seriously want to move forward — is he prepared to meet his obligations."

President Abbas has been touring Arab capitals to catch the momentum for the talks when they do finally begin.

Last month, he was already given the backing to enter direct talks by crucial states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This was followed by a green light from the full Arab League. That gave him important legitimacy and also domestic cover against the staunch opposition of Hamas to any talks with Israel.

The U.S. officials said a formal announcement would be followed possibly by a ceremony in Washington, but more likely in Egypt under the auspices of President Hosni Mubarak. Yet, as the legendary Yogi Berra had it, "It ain't over till it's over."

For all Netanyahu's vocal commitment to direct talks, a senior Israeli official told IPS that "Israel is not willing to agree to any preconditions from the back door via a Quartet announcement that will serve as a basis for the negotiations."

"It's not a question of 'conditions' at all, but of the ingredients for success in such talks," Erekat told IPS. "The Israeli moratorium on settlement building must continue," he added forcefully.

The 10-month partial settlement freeze declared by Netanyahu under U.S. pressure is set to end on Sep. 26.

With that deadline looming, there was a weekend of heightened international pressure on Abbas to announce that the Palestinians are now willing to join full-scale talks.

There was wariness among Palestinians following what they perceived as Washington's clumsiness in tackling Netanyahu on the settlement issue.

After Obama demanded that Netanyahu put in place a complete freeze on settlement activity as a prelude to any negotiations, the Palestinian leader followed suit. Then Obama backed down when Netanyahu only implemented a limited and temporary halt to settlement building, leaving Abbas clinging on his own to the original maximal demand.

Asked whether, given the erosion in the U.S. position on settlements, the Palestinians could trust Obama, Erekat said, "the President is doing the job just fine."

In recent weeks, Mitchell has been telling the Palestinians that once direct talks get under way, the Israeli prime minister would have no grounds for ending the settlement freeze. On the other hand, if Abbas stayed away from the table, Netanyahu would have it easy, and use the Palestinians' absence from talks as an excuse to resume Israeli building in the occupied Palestinian territories.

"All through the proximity talks, we have presented our positions clearly. On several occasions the U.S. expressed appreciation for that," the Palestinian negotiator stressed. "It really does depend on where Netanyahu wants to go. As yet, we haven't heard any Israeli answers to our positions."

The Palestinian reluctance to shift into direct talks about all the core issues stemmed also from suspicion of Netanyahu's intentions.

In a New York Times editorial last week, Abbas was exhorted not to miss the opportunity to get into a full-scale peace negotiation: "We don't know whether Mr. Netanyahu, a master manipulator, really wants a deal or whether his hard-line governing coalition would ever let him make one.

"But if Mr. Abbas is not at the table, there is no serious way of testing Mr. Netanyahu's intentions and whether there is any real chance of peacefully achieving a Palestinian state," said The NYT.

The fork in the road is not then whether the Palestinians should go into talks, but whether Netanyahu means to follow the Berra dictum, i.e., not decide whether he really wants to go down the peace road or not.

Unless the U.S. President continues to take a forceful position with both sides, the new 'final' round of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks could end up like the previous, inconclusive. Or, as Yogi Berra would have it "Déjà vu all over again."

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