Who Speaks for the Palestinians at the Negotiating Table?

Article excerpt

On the heels of the tripartite summit held in New York, journalist-and now Council for the National Interest (CNI) executive director-Helena Cobban, speaking at Washington, DC's Middle East Institute on Sept. 24, examined the possibilities for capable and credible Palestinian representation in peace negotiations. A frequent contributor to the Boston Review and the Christian Science Monitor, Cobban has spent much of her career deciphering and analyzing Palestinian internal politics as they relate to the peace process.

She began by highlighting the recent changes to the political context in Washington, DC. The Obama administration is the first to define the pursuit of a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace as being in the strategic interests of the United States. While this represents a significant and positive departure from the policies of the Clinton and Bush years, Cobban emphasized the need for President Obama to do more to "dominate and drive" the peace process.

The administration, Cobban said, must demonstrate that U.S. interests are not just limited to the activation of the process, but also extend to its completion. Furthermore, Washington must prove its readiness to "use all the levers of national power to shape the behavior of both sides." President Obama, in particular, needs to present a compelling and lucid vision of what the region at peace might look like. Last, Cobban stressed that the U.S. should insist on specific terms of reference on which a peaceful settlement of the conflict will be based, such as the Arab Peace Initiative.

Turning to Palestinian developments, Cobban noted that certain caveats must be attached to any evaluation of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. His position has been severely compromised by the Obama administration's inability to deliver a settlement freeze, Cobban said. Despite Abbas' difficult situation, Cobban expressed confidence in his ability to negotiate, citing his lifelong commitment to the Palestinian diplomatic approach. Whether he is capable of negotiating authoritatively, however, remains to be seen.

For Abbas to represent Palestinian interests at the negotiating table, Cobban said, he must coordinate effectively with all the Palestinian political factions, Hamas in particular. …