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Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations: Is this time different from all the other times?

August 24, 2010

After 43 years of ineffective and often disingenuous U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, skepticism over the August 20 announcement that direct talks will resume in Washington in September and produce a peace agreement within a year is more than understandable.

If you aren’t skeptical, you haven’t been paying attention for the last half century. Nonetheless, reason remains to think that this time could be different, enough reason to work to make it so. The danger is that an overdose of skepticism, and the paralysis it breeds, will become self-fulfilling prophecy.

A serious skeptic that the new talks will lead to peace is Stephen Walt. Walt cites three reasons for thinking that a meaningful deal is not in the offing: 1) there is no sign the Palestinians will accept anything less than a viable, contiguous, state with Jerusalem as its capital, 2) no sign that Israel’s government will accept anything more than “a symbolic Palestinian ‘state’ consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc.” and 3) no sign that the U.S. will put meaningful pressure on Israel.

As for Walt’s first reason, it’s good that there is no Palestinian willingness to accept anything less than a real state. A peace agreement needs to remedy the savage inequality that exists now between Israelis and Palestinians, not perpetuate it in another form.

Second, Israel’s current government may well be able to agree now on only the barest of symbolic Palestinian states, but a majority of the Israeli public and a majority in the Israeli parliament are prepared to accept much more. In such circumstances a change of government policy or a change of governments is possible.  Changing attitudes in the U.S. Jewish community, well-documented in polling done by the “pro-Israel-pro-peace” lobby J Street, could also contribute to change in Israel.

As for the U.S., the track record is not good, but it is a bit of an exaggeration to say that there has been no meaningful pressure on Israel. The U.S. response to Israel’s Jerusalem settlement expansion announcement in March was almost robust. It seems, moreover, to have had some practical, if unacknowledged, effect.

Certainly, the major suasion that the U.S. will have to employ to enable Israelis and Palestinians to overcome internal opponents of a two-state peace agreement has yet to be exercised. But it could be forthcoming. There are some indications that it will be. Let me be Pollyanna’s lawyer for a minute and make the case that this time of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will be different from all other times:

1) Three times in his August 20 Q&A with reporters Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Sen. George Mitchell asserted that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is a national interest of the United States. This is a new and potentially powerful theme for a U.S. administration to sound, and, significantly, it has been sounded not only by the president and his diplomats for months, but by virtually the entire U.S. military establishment. Secretary of Defense Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mullen, Gen. Petraeus when he was the head of Central Command, and the new head of Central Command, Marine Corp Gen. James Mattis, have all asserted that Israeli-Palestinian peace would advance U.S. interests in the greater Middle East. Having the military make the case that vital U.S. interests in the region require a peace agreement is a likely sign of serious administration intentions.

2) The August 20 announcement and Q&A included credible admonitions for Israelis and Palestinians to mind their manners and their actions. In her opening statement, Secretary of State Clinton said, “As we move forward, it is important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it.” Mitchell repeated Clinton’s statement verbatim in response to a question about a continued Israeli settlement freeze. “As the Secretary said in her statement a few moments ago, it’s important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it,” he said.

The same day the “Quartet” supporting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—the U.S., the EU, Russia, and the UN—issued a statement calling on both sides to “observe calm and restraint, and to refrain from provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric.”

All of this may be nothing more than pro forma rhetoric. But it could also signal an intention that when push comes to shove—as it will on September 26 when Israel’s announced (if ineffectual) settlement freeze expires—the U.S. and the Quartet will press hard to keep the parties from upsetting the applecart with settlements, home demolitions, inflammatory rhetoric and the like.

3) Also on August 20 Sen. Mitchell was not shy about affirming that “as necessary and appropriate, we will offer bridging proposals” to bridge the gaps between the two sides’ negotiating positions. Asked whether both Israeli and a Palestinian requests would be required before the U.S. would offer a bridging proposal, Mitchell replied, “…we will make bridging proposals at such time as we deem necessary and appropriate.” This is no guarantee that the U.S. will advance equitable proposals and provide effective incentives and disincentives to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to accept them, but it’s a sign that the administration is moving in this direction.

4) The launch of the resumed direct negotiations on September 1 and 2 is going to be a far grander affair than necessary. Not only will Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas be in town, but Egyptian President Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah will be in DC for the festivities with President Obama.

This is all political theater, but it’s a significant performance coming less than a month before the Israeli settlement freeze expires and only two months before the U.S. midterm elections. I take it as both a sign of the seriousness of the administration’s intentions and as an attempt to manage the political calendar as adroitly as possible. The proximity of the peacemaking summitry to the expiration of the settlement freeze ups the ante for Israel to continue a de facto if not an acknowledged freeze. The grandeur of the event helps to fill the void between now and the November elections, only after which does anyone expect serious diplomatic efforts to unfold.

5) The announced one year date for completing the negotiations may well slip, but it is another indication of the administration’s seriousness and another attempt to manage the political calendar—in this case to achieve a peace agreement before the next U.S. presidential election cycle starts.

Pay attention to who thinks this time frame is unrealistic and who thinks it is not, and you’re likely to find a strong correlation between professed pessimism and actual opposition to an equitable two-state peace agreement. Sen. Mitchell’s folksy Down East analogy is not a bad description of the reality. He likened the process to date and the one-year time frame to having his house painted. “It took the painters seemingly forever to prime the building and the walls,” he said, “And after this seemingly endless priming, they painted it very quickly.” In fact, based on the extensive work done in past negotiations and by track-two groups, given the political will, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could finish up in an evening over a single six-pack. (Take the question of borders, for example. Israeli and Palestinian positions are well-known, and a narrow range of options for U.S. bridging proposals has been well-defined in a study by the James Baker Institute. There’s not much more to consider; all that’s needed is a decision.)

Is Pollyanna Right?

The great question is whether the administration has the political will to insist that the parties heed their better angels and strike an equitable deal that will advance everyone’s interests. Mitchell’s constant mantra of “patience, perseverance, and determination” suggests at the least that the political will may be forthcoming. In my own conversations with administration officials I get the impression that there is real conviction behind the push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I also get the impression that administration officials themselves do not know whether the president will decide in light of future circumstances to go all out for Middle East peace, and attempt to embody the compelling vision he articulated in his Cairo speech a year ago.  That decision will be in part a product of the administration’s take on the strength of the demand and support for Middle East peace. That’s where we come in, and where we need to be careful that a reasonable dose of skepticism doesn’t lead to paralysis and  self-fulfilling prophecy.

  1. August 24, 2010 3:19 pm

    Without Hamas, it will be a pitiful charade.

  2. Jim Fine permalink
    August 24, 2010 3:54 pm

    Point well taken. The administration position on Hamas is problematic. (Congress, for the most part, is far worse.) Nonetheless, Mitchell did offer some encouraging words at the August 20 press conference. Actually, considering how popular demonizing Hamas is in U.S. politics, his response was remarkable. Asked what role Hamas had in the upcoming negotiations, he replied “none.” But later pressed to elaborate he said,

    With respect to Hamas, let’s be clear. Hamas won a legislative election. They acknowledge the continued executive authority of President Abbas and his team, and it is entirely appropriate that we negotiate with the executive head of that government. When Democrats regained control of the Congress in 2006, that didn’t end President Bush’s tenure as president, and others who wanted to negotiate with the United States negotiated with the legally elected and then-chief of our executive branch of government. And that is the situation here.

    It’s a sad day when stating an obvious fact has to be accounted an act of political courage. Mitchell deserves extra credit (but is likely to be taken to task by the forces of the status quo) for his striking analogy. Most important, I think, is the formal correctness of Mitchell’s reply and his choice not to wield the usual terrorist label. It strikes me as the reply of a seasoned and principled negotiator who knows that eventually all parties must be brought to agreement and that demonizing any of them doesn’t help matters.

  3. jeanie mceachern permalink
    August 24, 2010 5:07 pm

    ‘negotiations’ are nothing more than a red herring, and they are equally malodorous. the outrageous obturations of the zionist-infected israeli ‘pathology’, which the US recognizes and enables as a legitimate government, will pertinaciously persist until the entrenched US-funded, palestinian-denigrating zionists are defenestrated from the israeli political spectrum and supplanted by such compassionate, fair-minded, groups w/in israeli society as THE JEWISH VOICE FOR PEACE, who endorse and proactively seek concinnity w/ the benighted, devastated palestinian victims of israeli-zionist genocide. i fear that will not unfold in our lifetime… not until the US, w/ its hegemonistic wars of opportunism, primarily to defend and support their corporate overlords’ middle east energy extraction enterprises, has finally bankrupted itself.

  4. Nader Ajluni permalink
    August 28, 2010 6:24 pm

    We need to establish mutual respect. As we do, the contours of coexistence will become apparent.

  5. Mark Grantham permalink
    October 26, 2010 10:33 am

    It is time that we respect the needs and feelings of the Palestinians, and not just the Israelis. The Palestinians are residents of Israel, they have feelings, emotions and needs, it is time we shut our mouths and listened!
    If we sanction a separate state for the Palestinians, are we not sanctioning a belief in ” Separate but Equal”? For far too long we have considered the feelings of Israelis, and by that I mean Jews, but there are other people who live there as well!
    It is time we stopped approaching this process from a Western viewpoint, this is not the West, it is the Middle East! There are many people who want Peace, I am one of the many! I lived in Syria, met many Palestinians who were forced to flee their homes and their homeland. These people want to go home, many have the deed and keys to their home, realizing they will never see this house again! I had to chuckle the other day, a fried was chatting with me, and she said how the Arabs hate the Jews, when I asked about this feeling in reverse, she immediately changed the subject. Hatred is a learned behavior, it is not something we are born knowing. We should look for the reason for this feeling, and try to stop it.

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