Washington Watch: High hopes, low expectations

The big question hanging over both Netanyahu and Abbas is whether they are in for peace or process.

US Secretary of State John Kerry looking serious 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Poo)
US Secretary of State John Kerry looking serious 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Poo)
Hopes are high following US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to resume peace talks, but expectations remain low in view of the scant confidence most people have in the ability of the leaders on both sides to rise to the occasion.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have an opportunity to make history in the face of dire predictions that the proverbial window of opportunity for peace is slamming shut, but they are hobbled by reputations as weak and cautious leaders rather than creative thinkers willing to take risks.
Their negotiators, who are expected in Washington shortly, aren’t really coming to talk peace but to discuss the “shape of the [negotiating] table,” said Howard Sumka, former director of the USAID mission to the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, they’ll be talking about talking, not about core issues.
The fact that they’ve even come this far is a tribute to Kerry’s tenacity. Six trips in six months seemed to produce only scorn for what the conventional wisdom considered a waste of time as long as Netanyahu and Abbas were around.
He was tight-lipped about the details of his conversations with the two leaders, notorious leakers, but they largely kept quiet as well, surprising everyone with last Friday’s announcement.
Long-time Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat will be meeting with two Israelis he’s known and dealt with for years, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who is Netanyahu’s designated negotiator, and Yitzhak Molcho, her minder, who is the prime minister’s personal representative at all talks.
WHATEVER THE parties agreed upon in advance – regarding prisoners, settlements, maps – are closely guarded secrets not only from the public but, apparently, from each other. Only Kerry knows for sure, and he wants to keep it vague to minimize the domestic pressures on each side.
Kerry believes that “the best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private.” Secrecy will also help Abbas and Netanyahu keep their political coalitions together; each is packed with ministers who want to see the two-state solution fail.
Kerry’s secret weapon is fear. Fear can be a great motivator; what he’s counting on is both leaders’ fear of failure and the judgment of history if they let pass what may be a vanishing opportunity.
There is no sign of real change on either side; their acceptance of Kerry’s invitation appears motivated more by wanting to protect their relations with Washington – a vital national interest for both – rather than a desire to make history by making peace.
Kerry reportedly threatened to cut off American aid and publicly blame the Palestinian leader for the failure to resume negotiations if he continued erecting obstacles to new talks. Abbas knows that for all the sympathy he gets from the rest of the international community, only the United States has any clout with Israel, and he needs that.
But who does Abbas speak for? Not Hamas, the terror organization that controls Gaza and opposes the Kerry agreement. Hamas insists Abbas has no authority to negotiate and rejects any peace with Israel, which it wants eradicated. So if the Palestinians can’t make peace with each other, how are they to make peace with Israel? Israelis appear content with the status quo, but the Palestinians are a different story. They want an end to the occupation and the statehood their leaders have promised but never produced; if Abbas can’t deliver he could be in trouble and “Ramallah’s Manara Square could easily become Tahrir,” wrote Haaretz’s Jack Khoury.
What scares Netanyahu, the prime minister admits, is that failure of the two-state solution could lead to a bi-national state that would mean the demise of the Jewish nation state. But often he seems even more frightened about the increasingly vocal elements of his own Likud party that do not support two-state negotiations and want to continue the occupation of the West Bank.
Netanyahu made peace with President Barack Obama a few months ago after four fractious years.
He’d lost the leverage he thought he had by meddling in last year’s election, and now he needs the president’s backing. Netanyahu is less worried about losing US aid than about losing Obama’s leadership in the campaign to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions and protect Israel’s relationship with an unsettled Egypt.
The decision by the EU, Israel’s vital trading partner, to boycott Israeli settlements was also a motivator.
Giving the talks a chance over the next nine to 12 months also means Abbas won’t be going to the World Court or to UN agencies to pursue actions against Israel, as he keeps threatening.
If the two leaders are truly interested in making peace, they have some cards they can play against their domestic opponents. Both have powerful foreign allies who want them to succeed and domestic allies who want them to fail. They also know that polls show both their respective publics support the two-state solution.
Netanyahu faces strident opposition not only in his coalition but also in his own Likud party, but, with no real rivals in any direction, he can form a new government with the center-left Labor, because it wants peace, and with some of the ultra-religious parties, because they’re for sale to the highest bidder. Most important, he knows he can go to voters for a propeace mandate.
Netanyahu, the first Likud leader to endorse land for peace, to recognize the PLO and to support Palestinian statehood, now has a chance to make history. If he wants to.
The big question hanging over both Netanyahu and Abbas is whether they are in for peace or process. That remains a closely guarded secret. And that’s the reason hopes may be high but expectations are low that these two men are up to the job.©2013 DouglasMBloomfield
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