Analysis: Building drama-less diplomatic paradigms

Analysis Building drama

netanyahu abbas shake hands 248 88 (photo credit: )
netanyahu abbas shake hands 248 88
(photo credit: )
Tuesday's tripartite meeting at the gilded Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan ushered in the end of the dramatic age of Middle East diplomacy. Good-bye to the dramatic summits that raise expectations sky-high. Gone are the days when a three-way handshake is interpreted as a "tipping point." Hello to the long haul and drudgery of trying to change the reality on the ground. In the long run-up to Tuesday's meeting - a meeting that actually served US President Barack Obama's domestic and international purposes more than that of either the Israelis or the Palestinians - all sides tried to play down expectations. And with good reason. The meeting did not present an "Oslo moment," with the sides believing they were going into the parley facing a dark reality, and emerging facing a different, sunny one. No, this is a new period of diplomacy, a period marked not by drama, but by waiting to see what happens on the ground. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a seminal interview with Jackson Diel in The Washington Post at the beginning of the summer - one quoted again Monday by a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office on the way to New York - said he was in no hurry. He said that his negotiations with former prime minister Ehud Olmert had left gaps "too wide," that life was improving in the West Bank, and that he could wait until the US pressure on Israel led to the collapse of the Netanyahu government. In short, he was willing to wait. And waiting is indeed what he is doing. Abbas climbed up a massive redwood tree, saying negotiations would not begin until Israel declared an all-out settlement freeze. And he has, so far, held on to the branches. Which means that the negotiations are not continuing, and the waiting game is on. Paradoxically the waiting game also serves Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as long as - and this is indeed taking place - the Palestinians continue institution-building: improving their ability to govern, improving their security apparatus with the help of US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, and improving their economy. There may be little high-profile diplomatic drama right now, but on the ground, there are changes. The story is not in New York, but in changes in the West Bank. The Palestinians are doing this so that in two years' time, they will have the ability to declare a state - unilaterally if necessary - and actually have institutions in place that would make that statement not completely void of meaning. And for Netanyahu, this fits in very well with his economic peace approach, an approach once ridiculed by many, that holds that peace will come from the bottom up, not the top down. In this conception, peace does not flow like a river from high-level meetings, but from incremental changes on the ground that change attitudes. Netanyahu, like Abbas, does not need diplomatic bells and whistles. He, too, can wait: His government is stable, and the US - apparently cognizant of its mistake at the beginning of the Obama tenure in calling for an impractical total settlement freeze - has turned down the pressure. The prime minister can wait to see how things develop on the ground in the West Bank, and then - two years from now - make decisions. And in the meantime, he can continue, as he said, to provide for normal life in the settlements - not anything "provocative," but enough to ensure his coalition's survival. There may be those who were disappointed that no white smoke emerged from Tuesday's meeting. Obama may be disappointed that he did not have an earth-shattering announcement to declare before the gathering of world leaders. But a new diplomatic paradigm has been developed, and it consists of making progress where possible, hoping that progress begets progress. It is a paradigm, as Tuesday made quite evident, singularly void of high drama.