Haim Saban has a dream: Help the Israelis and Palestinians adopt a pragmatic
vision that will advance the goal of peace between the two nations.
has for the past seven years been convening the Saban Forum – a fascinating
gathering of influential government officials, academics and journalists from
Israel and the US. Last week, at the Forum’s latest meeting in Washington, he
added a surprising innovation: The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salam
Fayyad, and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, conducted an open and candid
dialogue, moderated by a prominent local television personality.
present to hear the discussion between the two. So too were other forum invitees
including Knesset members, senior administration officials, and other skilled
peace envoys like Tony Blair, George Mitchell, Terje Rød-Larsen and Javier
Solana. I am sure all the listeners felt, as did I, a strong feeling of
optimism. This is how we would like to see the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue
conducted: rationally, in a friendly atmosphere, free of past traumas, and
focused on the benefits any agreement will have for millions of
Livni and Fayyad were cautious not to enter the minefield of the
sensitive core issues. The exhaustive grappling with these deep disagreements
cannot be handled in a public forum. But even in the absence of this practical
dimension – on which, of course, the chances of a historical agreement will
stand or fall – the spirit of the dialogue that the two leaders conducted was
characterized by great hope and good will.
THE PROFOUND problem is that
real life does not take place in the non-binding format of the Saban Forum. In
reality, the wheels of the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, which is
nearing the end of its second decade, are deeply stuck. Any ill-considered move
by any of the three leaders at the wheel – the Americans, Israelis and
Palestinians – will only sink the diplomatic vehicle deeper in the mud. The only
way to extricate it is with a powerful tow-truck.
US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton, who gave the opening address at the Saban Forum, made it
explicitly clear in her speech that “if needed,” she would offer bridging
proposals – the towing cable – aimed to prevent new deadlock when the talks
restart – to drag the peace talks vehicle back to the main road.
the determined rhetoric of the secretary of state, the majority of the forum’s
participants were skeptical about the prospects of the negotiations, even if
they are resumed in the near future in some form or another. In their opinion,
there is only one common denominator between the Israelis, Palestinians and the
Americans today: A lack of will to pay the price of a brave peace
Netanyahu, the way he sees it, has managed to safely avoid the
danger of an additional moratorium, and is no rush to shake up his government
again. To be sure, his coalition has to deal with mid-term troubles that will
accompany it as long as the various coalition parties feel the political need to
demonstrate fealty to their constituents.
But there is no real threat to
the coalition’s stability on the horizon. Those who hoped, as I did, that the
prime minister would adopt a more moderate agenda than that around which the
rightwing coalition coalesced two years ago – aided by Kadima’s readiness to
provide a parliamentary safety net – have been disappointed. Netanyahu’s
strategic choice indicates that even if negotiations are held in the near future
on the truly fundamental issues (security, borders, refugees, Jerusalem), there
will be no real breakthrough.
The picture is no more promising in the
Palestinian camp. The last thing Mahmoud Abbas wants are American compromise
proposals. It’s likely these would be closer to the Palestinian stance than that
of Israel, but agreeing to them would place him in the position he has so
skillfully avoided ever since he succeeded Yasser Arafat: required to tell his
people that they must abandon their illusion of the right of return of refugees
to the state of Israel.
No less troubling is the reality staring at us
from Washington. During the Saban Forum, I spoke with local friends who are
experts in gauging the mood shifts in the Democratic administration, the
Republican Congress and American public opinion.
Their assessments were
identical: President Obama has despaired of his failed diplomatic adventure in
our region. His main priority now will be getting re-elected for a second term.
The lesson the Democratic Party has learned from its recent beating in the
congressional elections is to focus all its efforts on the domestic arena – on
the faltering economy, the deepening recession and the dismaying unemployment
Therefore, even if the US government does not go as far as to
adopt the repeated calls of the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman to leave the
quarreling children of the Holy Land alone, those presidential energies and
attention directed at our region will be focused solely on managing the conflict
rather than solving it.
This is the view from Washington. Not only is the
weather in the American capital freezing (minus seven degrees), but so too is
the diplomatic process between us and our Middle East neighbors.The
writer is a former Kadima minister.