Proximity? It’s a start

Perhaps the pessimism at the starting point of this round of peace talks will guard against the over-confidence that accompanied previous ventures.

abbas mitchell 311 (photo credit: AP)
abbas mitchell 311
(photo credit: AP)
With vigorous US encouragement, the Arab League this week woke the peace process from its deep slumber. Time will tell if the present initiative is just a blip of vigilance in a terminally comatose patient or the beginning of substantive dialogue.
The facts are that foreign ministers from 14 Arab countries (out of the 22 that belong to the League) met in Cairo this week to back the resumption of talks between Israelis and Palestinians after a hiatus of more than a year. Syria was the only country that dissented.
We see the new effort to jump-start talks as a positive step and profoundly hope – albeit sadly without much expectation – that this time the Palestinians will reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence and negotiate for a viable settlement accordingly. Only if the Palestinian leadership enters this latest effort with the realization that Israel is here to stay, and that maximal demands will have to be reined in, will these “proximity talks” avoid the fate of all previous efforts.
Talks have been stalled since Israel launched its assault on Hamas in late 2008 to stop a constant barrage of rockets and missile attacks which had gained in frequency and force since the 2005 disengagement, when Israel evacuated settlements and military forces from the Gaza Strip.
But even before the Gaza conflagration, the peace process begun at Annapolis was essentially deadlocked, and it proved doomed when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chose not to respond positively to unprecedented, far-reaching concessions proposed by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
In this, he was following the sorry tradition of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who in the summer of 2000 turned down prime minister Ehud Barak’s efforts to partner the Palestinians to statehood via compromise in Jerusalem, a withdrawal from well over 90 percent of the West Bank, and good-faith parameters to address the issue of the “right of return.”
OLMERT HAD persuaded George W. Bush that a deal was feasible. Hence the president’s support for the ill-fated Annapolis framework. Its collapse has turned even some of the last optimists into skeptics.
Writing last November, the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman – who scooped and endorsed the Arab League’s 2002 initiative – threw in the towel. He called on the US to give up on the peace process until the two parties “felt enough pain.” In the meantime, argued Friedman, the US should stop subsidies to Israel and the PA, which served only to “anesthetize” the painful status quo.
Thankfully, the US did not heed the isolationist advice.
The Arab League’s acquiescence to talks now provides Abbas with the important political cover he needs in the face of detractors, such as Hamas, that are opposed to all and any diplomatic gestures to legitimize the State of Israel. But it is the US that is the prime mover behind the new initiative.
The Obama administration would doubtless have hoped for a more tangible diplomatic achievement as Vice President Joe Biden prepares to fly in on Monday, but at least the “proximity” scheme will spare us embarrassing photo-ops with negotiating teams shaking hands and flashing smiles. Instead, the administration’s indefatigable envoy George Mitchell will shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
There are few signs of the “pain” that Friedman wrote of, on the part of either of the two parties. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stands by his endorsement of a two-state solution, but has done nothing on the ground to confront illegal outposts, and housing starts in West Bank settlements actually increased in the final three months of last year despite the moratorium on new building that went into effect at the end of November.
More critically and fundamentally, there are still no indications that the Palestinians’ desire for a state is superseding their hostility to the fact of Israel’s existence. Official PA media still incites against the “Zionist entity” and the significance of Abbas’s choice of the term “genocide” to misrepresent Operation Cast Lead, and his subsequent “war crimes” campaign against Israel, further reduced mainstream Israel’s fading confidence in him.
THE FACT is, however, that all parties to this conflict are best servedby a two-state solution – and that emphatically includes an Israel thatseeks a viable separation from the Palestinians in order to maintain aJewish and democratic state.
Perhaps the pessimism present at the starting point of this new effortwill guard against the over-confidence and delusion that haveaccompanied previous ventures.