RAMALLAH, West Bank — Something is happening with the Middle East conflict. A breakthrough appears at hand, though all the parties still seem to be clinging to their traditional positions.

The Arab League gave the go-ahead to indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks, and the various Palestinian leadership forums have approved the resumption of talks. Even the usually boisterous Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has toned down his rhetoric, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave an optimistic interview to Israel TV.

But Israel has not publicly agreed to the U.S. and Palestinian request to rescind settlement construction in Jerusalem approved during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel. On the contrary, Israeli officials, denying Palestinians’ assertion that a secret U.S.-Israel agreement exists, clearly intend to continue building Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem. So what’s going on?

For starters, we are again moving into what Henry Kissinger called the realm of “constructive ambiguity.” Palestinians have been assured via a message from President Barack Obama, delivered by his special envoy George Mitchell, that the Israelis will not carry out any “provocations” during the coming four months of indirect negotiations. Pressed to clarify, the Palestinians admitted that there is no written promise to this effect.

Yet, on a recent trip to Israel, White House adviser Dan Shapiro is said to have been reassured that the Israelis will not embarrass their American friends. In exchange, Shapiro handed the ultra- orthodox leader of Israel’s Shas party an invitation to the White House. Mitchell gave a similar invitation to Abbas.

Palestinians understand that without pressure little change will take place. They have also clearly understood the folly of violent resistance, and have made a dramatic shift to nonviolent action — with the acceptance (and possibly encouragement) of the international community — in order to maintain pressure on the occupiers.

The PLO’s main faction, Fatah, made this shift at their sixth congress, held in Bethlehem last winter after a 20-year hiatus. Senior PLO officials have participated in demonstrations and protest activities; some have been injured and Executive Committee member Abbas Zaki was imprisoned for a couple of days. Other senior Fatah officials have been banned from travel outside the West Bank, owing largely to their involvement in nonviolent protests.

In addition to nonviolent activities, Palestinian state-building efforts have been put in high gear. Salam Fayyad, the energetic Western-trained Palestinian prime minister, has implemented a detailed blueprint for declaring a de facto Palestinian state by August 2011.

While state-building is handled by the civilian Palestinian Authority, political efforts are handled by the PLO, whose chairman, Abbas, is the head of Fatah as well as the Palestinian Authority’s president. Abbas and his negotiating team, headed by Erekat, have been successful in securing the support of all members of the Arab League.

The PLO has succeeded in obtaining European support for a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood. The Americans remain an obstacle. When Palestinians asked Mitchell for assurances that Washington would support such a statehood declaration if talks failed, Mitchell said such a commitment would make negotiations pointless.

Instead, the Americans have their own ideas about how to achieve a breakthrough, especially with Israel, which the Obama administration believes is now the major obstacle. To effect change in Israel, the Americans are launching various trial balloons. One is that, if the current process fails, Obama might issue his own plan, which many expect would be a near-carbon copy of the proposal made by Bill Clinton’s administration in its last days 10 years ago.

A U.S. peace plan that is fair and reasonable would certainly have many ordinary Israelis and Palestinians cheering. It could cause some major damage to rightwing Israeli political forces that came to power as a result of eight years of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s “war on terror.”

Hiding behind that anti-Islamic facade, the Israelis have found it easy to stonewall all reasonable peace efforts, including the 2002 Arab peace plan, according to which Arab states and Muslim-majority countries agreed to normalize relations with Israel if it withdrew from areas occupied in 1967. The plan also gave Israel a role equal to that of the Palestinians in resolving the refugee issue. It called for the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.”

Another U.S. trial balloon has been suggested if all of the above fails: The Americans might suggest that the Arab- Israeli conflict be resolved through the convening of an international conference.

Until now, Israelis and Palestinians have insisted on various “red lines” that they proclaimed they would never cross. The coming months will show whether these public postures are negotiable, with obvious consequences for both parties and their relationship with the international community.

Daoud Kuttab is general manager of the Community Media Network in Palestine.© 2010 Project Syndicate

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