Call me a pessimist or a downer, but I’m truly skeptical about the sincerity of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas on closing the book on this conflict.
Despite some confidence building measures from both sides in the last year — like Netanyahu’s temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank and Abbas’ clampdown on radical Palestinians — the Israeli and Palestinian delegations are at polar opposites of one another on every major issue. Rumors are already going around in the Israeli press that Netanyahu is kowtowing to the right on resuming settlement expansion when the moratorium ends September 26. A weak and indecisive Abbas is looking for any excuse he can get to pull out of the talks, for he really didn’t want to engage the Israelis in the first place (it took some extra cajoling from Envoy George Mitchell and Secretary Hillary Clinton to convince the tired Abbas to travel to Washington). And the motives of the Arab states are still questionable in the views of those who know all too well about Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan’s tendency to dictate terms on Palestinian negotiators.
There are, of course, some slight differences in today’s negotiations that distinguish themselves from the past. Netanyahu and Abbas have known each other personally for a very long time; both the Israelis and Palestinians have staked out consistent positions and each side knows the demands of the other; and over two-thirds of the Palestinian electorate in the West Bank is supportive of direct talks with the Israelis. If you were an optimist like former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, you may agree that “the negotiating environment is better suited to peacemaking today than it has been at any point in the last decade.” But you wouldn’t have been paying that much attention in the past decade.
The last ten years were particularly heinous for the Middle East peace process, consisting of a bloody Palestinian intifada from 2001-2003, an Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 and an Israel-Hamas war in 2008-2009. Sure the peacemaking environment is better today than it was over the past decade. How can it get any worse?
But predictions and feelings aside, today’s direct talks are really not all that different from past meetings. The current peace drive still hinges on that old issue that has made reconciliation a distant fantasy: Jewish settlements. If Netanyahu caves in to his right-wing coalition, settlement construction will resume in the West Bank later this month and Abbas will walk out with his tail between his legs. If, however, Netanyahu is bold enough to extend the settlement moratorium for another couple of months, the talks that everyone now expects to fail may in fact gain some headway. It all comes down to September 26.
Call me crazy, but I’m not betting on the latter.