This is the trip US President Barack Obama should have made a year ago when it could have made a big difference. Instead, at 4:08 p.m. Israel time Monday, it was Vice President Joe Biden who landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the latest in a parade of senior US officials trying to resuscitate the peace process and discourage an IDF strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
As Biden arrived, US peace envoy George Mitchell announced that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to indirect peace talks, with the former senator and his team shuttling between the two. Mitchell is due back next week to work out the “structure and scope” of the talks. It could already be too late.
The administration tried to relaunch negotiations early last year before adequately preparing the ground by working with both sides on a game plan. To Israelis it looked one-sided as they saw the unknown and untested new president come to their neighborhood to court the Muslim world but not bothering to drop in on an old ally. Behind their trademark bravado, Israelis are insecure and in continuing need for reassurance. In person.
That will be Biden’s job when he speaks at Tel Aviv University today. Both sides have little enthusiasm and low expectations for the proximity talks. Neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has shown he is ready to make the tough historic compromises required for peace.
The Arab League gave the weak and cautious Abbas “permission” to drop his demand for a total settlement freeze in exchange for four months of US-mediated indirect talks. If the past in any indicator, Abbas’s Arab brethren won’t be around when he’ll need them most – to lend support if and when he confronts the tough decisions on compromises.
Abbas’s aides have already begun playing the blame game, with a spokesman calling this the last chance for peace and warning that the Palestinians will walk out if they’re unsatisfied with progress on the issue of borders and territory. Their strategy is to put the burden on Washington to deliver Israeli concessions they seek.
These are not final status negotiations but attempts to clear the way for direct talks. Nonetheless, the administration is touting it as a breakthrough although, as noted previously in this column, they are a step backward from more than 16 years of face-to-face talks.
NETANYAHU HAS the most at risk in these talks. If they fail, there is the danger that Palestinian anger and frustration could turn violent, sparking a third intifada. But the greater threat may be the potential damage to his already troubled relations with the Obama administration.
The Palestinians can walk away, blame Israel for everything from the Chilean earthquake to the heartbreak of psoriasis and half the world will back them up on it. Israel doesn’t have that luxury.
Biden’s speech to the Israeli people today – one that Obama should have given from the podium of the Knesset last summer when he was in the Middle East – will be titled “The enduring partnership between the United States on Israel.”
He will stress, as he told an Israeli newspaper, “A nuclear-armed Iran would constitute a threat not only to Israel – it would also constitute a threat to the United States.”
Privately, his message is likely to be more blunt. As a senator he was a strong supporter of Israel who was never reluctant to express his frustration, bordering on anger, when he thought Israeli leaders were dragging their feet or trying to derail the peace process.
Netanyahu has made some progress convincing the administration that he is serious about making peace, but he still has a long way to go here and around the world, and he continues to take actions – authorizing new settlement construction, designating West Bank sites as critical Israeli religious landmarks, vowing to maintain a Jordan Valley presence – that tell a different story.
His highest priority is Iran and he wants Washington stand firm with Israel on that front, and that gives him an incentive to make sure he doesn’t hand Obama more failure on the peace front.
Looming over both sides is the American threat to go public and point the finger of blame at those it considers obstructionist. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday if Washington feels either party “is not living up to its commitments, we will say so.” And when the talks hit snags, he added, the US will offer “bridging proposals.”
With a coalition that depends for survival on the national and
religious parties and the settler movement, Netanyahu has little
flexibility. You’ll know he is serious about negotiating a settlement
when he tries to “reshuffle his coalition to bring in Kadima,” the
centrist party led by Tzipi Livni, writes Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher.
For now, he said, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas “signals readiness to
make the painful concessions required for a two-state solution.”
Vice President Biden will be trying to motivate both Netanyahu and
Abbas in his one-on-one personal meetings this week, but it may take
the personal intervention of President Obama to close the deal. And
with the current cast of characters, there’s no guarantee even that