Mahmoud Abbas is searching for an honorable way to climb down the tree. He is hoping that the US Administration or the Quartet will provide him with the needed ladder. The major obstacle to peace is the increasing radicalization of the Arab and Islamic masses and the continuing demonization of Jews. As far as many Arabs and Muslims are concerned, Israel is one big settlement that needs to be removed.

The Palestinian Authority is demanding that the UN Security Council condemn Israel for building in the settlements and east Jerusalem neighborhoods.

In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Palestinian Authority said that Israeli settlements were "illegal" and "destructive" to the peace process.

The letter was sent to Ban Ki-moon ahead of a meeting of representatives of the Quartet - the US, EU, UN and Russia - in New York to discuss ways of reviving the stalled peace process.

The Palestinian Authority, in its letter, also urged the Quartet to exert pressure on Israel to stop activities in the settlements or face being held fully responsible for "derailing" the peace process.

For the past two decades, the Palestinian Authority had been negotiating with Israel while construction in the settlements was continuing.

The construction did not seem to bother Yasser Arafat, who continued to hold peace talks with Israel even while the bulldozers were working in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Arafat never demanded a full cessation of settlement activities as a pre-condition for pursuing the peace talks with Israel.

Abbas and his negotiators sat at the negotiating table with Israel even after they had threatened that the peace process would end if Israel built the new Har Homa neighborhood in east Jerusalem.

True, the Palestinian Authority under Arafat did sometimes voice opposition to Israel's policy of settlement construction. But that did not prompt them to boycott the peace talks.

Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, also did not seem to have a problem with the settlements during the first few years of his term in office.

Abbas continued to talk to representatives of the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert while settlements were being expanded and new housing units were being built in east Jerusalem.

Abbas cannot say that he was unaware of the construction, especially in light of the fact that from his office and home in Ramallah he could see the new houses in nearby settlements.

The issue of the settlements became a "major obstacle to peace" only when US President Barack Obama one day demanded that Israel freeze all settlement activities. Obama's demand embarrassed the Palestinian Authority, whose leaders rushed to endorse the call.

The Palestinian Authority leadership even took a step further by announcing that it would not return to the negotiating table unless Israel halted all settlement activities.

But then one morning President Obama abandoned the demand, leaving Abbas alone on a high tree. Now Abbas is searching for an honorable way to climb down the tree. He is hoping that the US Administration or the Quartet will provide him with the needed ladder.

But the real question that needs to be raised these days is whether settlements are the major obstacle to peace?

Abbas knows that the future of the settlements will be determined only through direct negotiations with Israel. He also knows that some of the settlements will stay in their place even after the signing of a final and comprehensive peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

In 2005, Israel destroyed more than 20 settlements and evicted 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. The move did not leave an impression on the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, especially those affiliated with Hamas and radical groups in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas and its allies misinterpreted the disengagement from the Gaza Strip as a sign of weakness, not a goodwill gesture on the part of Israel.

Even if Israel tomorrow dismantled 90% of the settlements in the West Bank, who said that the Palestinians will take to the streets to sing the Israeli national anthem?

Settlements may be a problem, but they are certainly not the major obstacle to the peace process.

There are, meanwhile, many other major obstacles to peace. These include the rise of Islamists to power in the Arab world, the ongoing power struggle between Fatah and Hamas and the reality that the Gaza Strip has been turned into a center for global jihad and a front for Iran's extremist rulers.

The major obstacle to peace is the increasing radicalization of the Arab and Islamic masses and the continuing demonization of Jews. As far as many Arabs and Muslims are concerned, Israel is one big settlement that needs to be removed.

Another major obstacle to peace can be found in the irony that Abbas does not seem to have a mandate from his people to make any concessions to Israel. A president who cannot even visit his private residence in the Gaza Strip will never be able to deliver anything on any front.

Related Topics:  Khaled Abu Toameh receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free gatestone institute mailing list

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