Analysis: US takes low-key approach in launching talks

The difference in style between summits past and this week’s start of peace talks is no coincidence.

Obama smiles 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Obama smiles 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – When the George W. Bush administration was preparing to launch negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in 2007, officials chose Annapolis, Maryland – site of America’s first peace-time capital – as the marquee location. They invited some 40 world leaders from the Middle East, Europe and beyond to participate. They converted the US Naval Academy’s basketball arena into a media center to accommodate the press corps.
This time, the Obama administration is hosting just four world leaders – from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt – in Washington. The venues are the usual ones for diplomatic encounters: the White House and the State Department. The largest gathering was due to take place Wednesday night at a dinner US President Barack Obama was to hold in the White House’s Old Family Dining Room, rather than the larger State Dining Room.
The difference in style between summits past and this week’s start of peace talks – to which Obama administration officials have studiously avoided attaching the “summit” moniker – is no coincidence.
Speaking to the press ahead of the beginning of marathon meetings that will culminate in the formal start of talks at the State Department Thursday, Middle East envoy George Mitchell noted that the administration has tried to learn the lessons of previous iterations of the peace process.
“What we’ve tried to do is to avoid a slavish adherence to the past while trying to learn what might have been improved in the past, what worked, what didn’t work.”
Mitchell then listed a number of important ingredients the administration was hoping to utilize. He neglected to mention recipes that hadn’t succeeded, but Annapolis was only one of many negotiations inaugurated with much fanfare only to ultimately fail to produce an agreement.
“This administration knows from past experience – whether it’s Annapolis, Aqaba or Madrid – that the process of sitting around a table, by itself, is not a breakthrough,” pointed out Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert with the US Institute of Peace.
“No issue in the international arena suffers from summit fatigue more than the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Lasensky said. “As careful students of history, the president and his team understand from past summits that expectations can be raised too high from photo-ops.”
He added that the administration was wary of putting too much pressure on the parties from a strong “public glare,” particularly after the US encountered significant difficulties in just getting the parties to direct talks.
The face-to-face negotiations are being undertaken after nearly four months of indirect talks, which followed more than a year of US pressure for the sides to take confidence-building measures they largely resisted.
The Obama administration’s own obstacles in getting direct negotiations off the ground could also be tempering its enthusiasm for trumpeting too loudly the long-awaited resumption of talks, which broke off before Obama came to office.
In part because of these complications, the administration is also looking to caution observers about the difficult road ahead, and what’s expected of the parties.
“In a measured and business- like way, they’re trying to project a message that it’s time to roll up their sleeves,” according to Lasensky.
The atmospherics of this gathering aren’t all cosmetic, however. As Lasensky noted, being in an intimate atmosphere could actually allow for more progress to be made, particularly in the crucial personal relationship between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“In a low-key, small format, there’s more opportunity for Netanyahu and Abbas to spend time face to face and get a sense of each other. These
are not leaders who are meeting all the time,” he said. “That’s an important dimension.”