Imagine a wedding arranged by parents, where neither the bride nor the groom
wants to get married to the other, but both reluctantly agree to stand under the
huppa only because their parents – upon whom they are both still very much
dependent – demand it.
Now you get the picture as Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who live 15 minutes
from each other, get ready to travel 10,000 kilometers to their “daddy’s home”
at the White House to meet and have a wedding neither has convinced his
acquaintances he really wants. Both – through close friends – have also
indicated they don’t really think will it work out at all.
“The more we
lower expectations, the healthier it is,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
said Wednesday, a week before the scheduled ceremonial meeting in Washington
between Netanyahu, Abbas and US President Barack Obama, in the presence of
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Quartet envoy
Tony Blair. That ceremony will be followed by a working meeting the next day
between Netanyahu, Abbas and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
be told, it was not entirely clear to whom Lieberman’s words were directed,
because rarely in recent memory has a Mideast diplomatic process been launched
to lower expectations. No one, except perhaps the indefatigably optimistic
Blair, US envoy George Mitchell and some administration officials involved in
the process, who perhaps know something the rest of us don’t, is saying the
process has much chance of success.
Even two of the three invited guests
– Mubarak and Abdullah – are not, according to Israeli diplomatic officials,
attending because of any great confidence in the future of the “marriage,” but
because they too are heavily reliant on the US and must come when Obama calls.
And Obama is calling.
On the face of it, the rock-bottom expectations
might be a good. For one thing if you look at the process through dark-colored
glasses, anything positive that emerges would be viewed as a tremendous
Also, the low expectations indicate that something has been
learned from historical experience – not only that the overly high expectations
that accompanied the Oslo process were badly misplaced, but also that there is a
danger in expecting too much. Great hope was placed on the Camp David meetings
in the summer of 2000, with some talking of a comprehensive solution and end of
the conflict. So when the talks failed and the process broke down, what came out
of the shattered expectations was unprecedented violence.
paroxysm of violence is not widely anticipated if these direct talks fail, both
because no one really thinks they will succeed and because life in the West Bank
has improved significantly. It is considered unlikely in Jerusalem that the
Palestinians will want to risk all that on yet another terrorist war.
THE OTHER hand, one Israeli diplomatic source said the problem with extremely
low expectations is that they have a tendency to turn into self-fulfilling
prophecies. If the sides don’t think anything will work out, if they don’t
expect anything at all, then they won’t necessarily put themselves on the line
–make the painful concession – to get things to work out, knowing failure is
Why, for instance, should Abbas risk going down
ignominiously in Arab history as the Palestinian leader willing to give up on
the so-called right of return, if he doesn’t think that anything will come out
of negotiations with Netanyahu.
It was difficult this week, during
conversations with both Israeli and American officials, to figure out what
exactly has changed on the ground that leaves anyone any room for optimism that
the process will succeed where so many previous attempts have
Indeed, even Mitchell, when he was asked this question after
announcing the direct talk’s relaunch last Friday, had no real answer, beyond
saying something to the effect that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try
“On the question of past efforts in failing and succeeding, I’ll
return, if I might, to my experience in Northern Ireland,” said Mitchell, who
brokered the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Using a line he has repeated
dozens of times in the past, even well before he was appointed to his present
job last year, Mitchell said, “I chaired three separate sets of discussions in
Northern Ireland, spanning a period overall of five years. The main negotiation
lasted for 22 months. During that time, the effort was repeatedly branded a
failure. I was asked at least dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times when I was
leaving because the effort had failed. And of course, if the objective is to
achieve a peace agreement, until you do achieve one, you have failed to do so.
In a sense, in Northern Ireland, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of
Mitchell said he was approaching the current process “with the
same determination to succeed notwithstanding the difficulties and
notwithstanding the inability to get a final result so far, including past
efforts. But past efforts at peace that did not succeed cannot deter us from
trying again, because the cause is noble and just and right for all
That all may be well and true, but doesn’t answer the
question about what – if anything – has changed this time to give the process a
better chance of success.
One possible notion has been that the regional
constellation has changed, and that with Iran and the Islamic extremists
breathing down everyone’s necks, the socalled moderate Arab regimes – Egypt,
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf countries – have more of an interest in
seeing the process succeed than in the past, if only to take the
Palestinian-Israeli issue off the agenda so Iran and the radicals can’t use it
to deflect attention.
Indeed, one senior US official said that these
regimes – including Saudi Arabia, which welcomed the resumption of the talks
this week – were helpful in getting the process off the ground.
Arab regimes were involved in the Annapolis conference as well – they were even
there in 2007 – and that process, like so many before it, led nowhere. Then,
too, the Iranian threat loomed extremely large, and the moderate Arab regimes
were viewed as wanting to solve our conflict to better deal with
Another idea that has been floated is that this US president and
this US administration are extremely determined, and have set an
Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a key foreign policy goal because it
impacts on US national security needs. Administration officials like to contrast
Obama’s involvement and commitment to what they dismiss as former president
George W. Bush’s lack of real interest and participation in solving the
conflict, at least until the very end of his tenure.
Assume for a moment
that this is an accurate description – and many would argue that it isn’t –
Obama is still not the first US president to be intimately and actively involved
in looking for a Mideast solution.
Look at Bill Clinton. Even with all
his intense involvement, the Oslo and Camp David processes led
Indeed, some say that it is important to learn from the Camp
David experience, where prime minister Ehud Barak and Clinton dragged Yasser
Arafat to the negotiating table, even though he wasn’t ready and – like Abbas
today – did not want to be there.
And finally, at least according to what
Mitchell said last week, conditions are ripe now because “the two sides have
leaders who are sincere and serious and believe that it can be done.” Some would
argue with that characterization.
Regarding Abbas there remain huge
questions about exactly whom he represents and what he would be able to
Can he implement an agreement in Gaza, where Hamas still
reigns supreme? And regarding Netanyahu, as the political jostling over whether
or not to extend the 10-month settlement construction freeze indicates, does he
have the political ability – let alone the will – to sign an agreement that
would necessitate not only freezing new settlement construction, but actually
removing existing settlements? And those are only a few of the questions about
each leaders’ abilities and capabilities.
For both, the present status
quo is not all that bad. Life in the West Bank, as Abbas said famously in an
interview with The Washington Post last year, has improved
The economy is growing, and the security situation is far
better than it was a few years ago.
AS FOR NETANYAHU, the security
situation inside Israel is the best it has been in years – buses are not blowing
up on the streets, and rockets are not raining down on the
Furthermore, Netanyahu’s political position is solid: His polling
numbers are strong, and his coalition is sound.
Then why go to talks?
Well, because Obama – like the parents at that fictional wedding – wants the two
sides to get married. And secondly because of a pervading diplomatic mind-set
that it is always good to have motion, a process, even if most realize that the
motion probably won’t lead to any real movement. What it will do, however, is
keep others from taking advantage of the vacuum formed if there were no motion
at all. The idea, simply put, is that as long as you’re talking, you’re not
And, as one diplomatic official in Jerusalem said, once the
talks start, it will set off a new dynamic. And who knows, he argued, that
dynamic might even be a positive one. In other words, get the couple wed, and
then hope they can find a way to live together.
Low expectations, indeed.