Proximity talks are off... and crawling

These talks are all about process and less about actual peace.

May 12, 2010 21:08
4 minute read.
Netanyahu meets Mitchell in Tel Aviv on Thursday,

BibiMitchellMeeting311. (photo credit: Matty STERN/U.S. EMBASSY TEL - AVIV)


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No sooner had the State Department praised the “atmosphere” at the opening of the Israeli-Palestinian indirect peace talks than a hole began opening in the ozone above them.

Despite his pledge to oppose anti-Israel incitement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ government lobbied – unsuccessfully – against Israel’s application for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Israel had agreed to a two-year freeze construction on a controversial housing project in east Jerusalem, the State Department announced, but the prime minister’s cabinet secretary pointedly announced the freeze covers only the one project and “building is expected to begin soon” in other east Jerusalem neighborhoods. The mayor of Jerusalem quickly chimed in to declare his opposition to any freeze and vowed to continue “planning and construction throughout the city.”

It is bad enough that each side has its own extremists who want to scuttle the talks, but when their own leaders look like they’re not on board, it’s time to bring out the worry beads.

The administration has warned it would not hesitate to point the finger of blame at any party it felt was being obstructionist; look for both sides to see how far they can push Washington before they become the bull’s-eye.

DON’T CONFUSE these talks with Kissinger-era shuttle diplomacy, when American envoys stayed in the region for weeks, moving back and forth to close the gaps; chief negotiator George Mitchell went home right after last weekend’s opening session and doesn’t plan to return before next week.

The Palestinians have imposed a four-month deadline on the talks, claiming that is the extent of their mandate from the Arab League. For all their talk of wanting peace, none of the parties seems to feel any sense of urgency.

Washington and Jerusalem say they want to move quickly to direct negotiations – as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, peace cannot be made by “remote control” – but Abbas seems to be reading from a different script. He makes no secret that he wants the US to conduct his negotiations for him, since it not only has more clout in Jerusalem but America’s views of the eventual outcome are closer to his than to Netanyahu’s. (The US position is also closer to that of former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.) All three parties have different goals in these talks.

The Palestinians want to end 43 years of occupation, create a state of their own and have the US deliver the Israeli concessions they can’t. Israel is less interested in peace with the Palestinians than in mollifying Washington because American backing is critical to its number one priority: keeping Iran out of the nuclear club. It also wants to show just enough movement to avoid having the Obama administration publish its own peace plan or call an international conference.

The Obama administration’s shaky foreign policy reputation is on the line, having made this a major issue from the start, but lately it has become more than that, as some senior US military commanders have indicated the lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created problems for the US in Iraq and Afghanistan and boosted recruiting by Islamic extremists.

PEACE IS more important to the US than to Abbas and Netanyahu, neither of whom appears willing or ready to make the tough historic compromises essential to closing the wide gaps between them. The two are so far apart on the core issues that it is difficult to image they can make significant progress.

Abbas’s strategy appears to be to drag out the proximity talks for the next four months, then threaten to drop out unless Washington pressures Israel for more concessions or proposes – and imposes – a peace plan of its own.

Netanyahu’s 10-month moratorium on settlement construction expires in September, and he will be under pressure from his base on the right to accelerate the building that has never really stopped, so he may try to swap a continued freeze for PA agreement to move to direct talks.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has become Israel’s chief link to the White House, shares the American view that a two-state solution is key to resolving the larger Arab-Israel conflict and to reversing the deterioration in Israel’s relations with the US. Barak has called for Israel to produce a “serious peace plan” of its own, but he admits he doubts that peace is possible with Israel’s current governing coalition. A Haaretz editorial this week said that if Netanyahu is serious about “the future of the country” – not just peace with the Arabs but also an end to “haredi extortion”– he should dump his ultra-right religious and nationalist coalition partners and form a government of national salvation with Tzipi Livni and Kadima and Barak’s Labor Party “to achieve a peace agreement.”

Until then the proximity talks are a lot of process but not much peace.

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