The White House dinner on Wednesday, on the eve of the official launch of
renewed Palestinian-Israeli talks, will be key to outlining the contours of the
“The dinner will help to restore trust,” Dennis Ross, the
Obama administration’s top Iran-policy official, said in a conference call last
Friday with Jewish organizational leaders.
Unless, that is, it turns into
a food fight.
Until the dinner, the exact issues to be negotiated will
What we do know is who will be there and where they’re
coming from. Here’s a preview.Binyamin Netanyahu – prime minister
proposed talks will mark the second time that the 60- year-old Netanyahu has
engaged in negotiations with a Palestinian partner under US
Last time, in 1997, while facing then-president Bill Clinton
and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu ceded a degree of control around
Hebron to the Palestinians. He has since suggested that he regrets the
concession: He was recorded as telling a grieving settler family in 2001 that
his agreement was little more than a ruse to keep a hostile administration at
bay. Also, his revered father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, now aged 100, was
known to be unhappy with the concession.
Having completed a slow climb
back to the premiership after his plunge in popularity following his first term,
from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu reportedly sees himself in a much stronger position
vis-avis Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Barack
Obama than he was with Arafat and Clinton.
Netanyahu wants to get
security issues out of the way before he talks final-status issues such as
Jerusalem, borders and refugees. Making sure that he has a plan to protect
Israelis will be key in the effort to pitch concessions to an Israeli public
still wary of the pounding Israel took after it withdrew unilaterally from the
Gaza Strip in 2005.
The immediate question for Netanyahu is whether he’ll
extend the self-imposed, partial, 10-month settlement construction freeze that
is set to expire at midnight on September 26. If he doesn’t, Abbas has said
he’ll quit the talks.Mahmoud Abbas – PA president
Mahmoud Abbas, 75, is
a successor to Arafat who has been far less problematic for his Western allies
but far less esteemed by the Palestinian people. His nadir came when Hamas
gunmen drove the PA out of Gaza in a bloody coup in June 2007. Since then, Abbas
has tried to reestablish his Fatah party and the PA as the inevitable repository
of Palestinian ambitions for statehood.
Negotiations are the only way for
Abbas and his prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, to demonstrate to the Palestinian
people that diplomacy trumps violence as a means to statehood.
insists that Israel agree to a permanent settlement freeze, and he wants to make
sure the talks get to the final-status issues as soon as possible so he can show
his constituents that he is reaping the benefits of cooperation.Barack
Obama – US president
It is tempting to cast the haste with which Obama, 49, has
organized these talks for early September as a sign of his panic at the prospect
of November 2’s congressional elections that seem likely to result in heavy
losses for the Democratic Party.
However, such an analysis would ignore
the fact that Obama was pressing hard for talks months ago, when his approval
ratings were much higher; it would also disregard America’s broader foreign
policy strategy in the region.
For the United States, having the talks
now gives Netanyahu a reason to extend his settlement moratorium and thereby
sustain Arab support for US policies elsewhere in the Middle East. This support
is seen as key while Obama attempts to juggle other crises in the region,
including Iraq’s vexed attempts to set up a government and the simmering concern
over Iran’s accelerating nuclear ambitions.
A peace treaty also would
signal US strength in the region; a Palestinian state would allow Arab
governments leeway in explaining to their populace why they are aligning with a
US effort to isolate the Iranian theocracy.
The US posture has been to
insist that these are Israeli-PA direct talks, but Obama has not been shy about
threatening direct intervention if there are stumbles.Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah
The United States sees both these
figures as critical to making the talks – and, eventually, Palestinian statehood
Egypt maintains some sway over Hamas, and controls access to a
major entry point into Gaza. Jordan has been deeply involved in helping to train
the PA police force, and would be a natural outlet for a resurgent Palestinian
Mubarak, 82, is known to be ill and eager to transfer power
smoothly to his son, Gamal; containing the Gaza problem and playing a role in
birthing a Palestinian state would provide a much-needed boost to Mubarak
Abdullah, 48, is also eager to contain Islamist extremism and has
in recent years positioned his regime as a bridge between the West and the
Muslim world. The emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank would also
help to quell the notion that Abdullah’s kingdom, where the majority of the
population is Palestinian, should be the Palestinian state.
Clinton – US secretary of state
Clinton, 62, is set to play the role of the
primary broker at the peace talks. Beginning on Thursday, she will host the
first substantive talks Israeli and Palestinian leaders will have had since
2000. That is a sign of Obama’s increasing confidence in his one-time bitter
rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton aides have
leaked to the press their frustration with the perceived limits on her role,
saying she has been kept out of the big games. That is changing, as evidenced
not only by her newly central role in these talks, but also in her recent
frontline exposure as she urged her former Senate colleagues to support new arms
treaties with Russia.
Israelis have been hoping for Clinton’s return,
despite her role in March in dressing down Netanyahu over an Interior Ministry
committee’s announcement, during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden, of a
large housing start in eastern Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood. Clinton
long has been seen as having strong emotional ties to Israel – ties that
Israelis feel Obama lacks.