Why do some US officials believe talks will succeed?

Israel and the PA are going into next week’s direct talks with very low expectations.

By
August 27, 2010 17:03
TRY AND TRY AGAIN. The summit in September 2009. Obama had urged then for both sides to start talks

Obama Netanyahu Abbas 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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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.

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“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.

Truth 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 achievement.

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.

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A similar 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.

ON 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 expected anyhow.

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 failed.

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 again.”

“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 success.”

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 concerned.”

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.

Yet the 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 Teheran.

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 nowhere.

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 implement.

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 significantly.

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 South.

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 shooting.

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.

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