One again an American president is flying in the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian people to try to reach some more satisfactory solution to the decade-old feud between the two nations. Barack Obama is having another try at the Middle Eastern peace process, inviting both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington DC this week. According to his special envoy to the region, there is a real “window of opportunity” for an accord this time.
With many analysts expecting failure, the administration has insisted that getting the two parties to attend the first direct talks in more than eighteen months is something of a victory in its own right. The parameters of the negotiations are, deliberately, undefined. “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,” said Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell on Tuesday. “And so we have avoided deliberately any specific label or identification that this is a continuation of process A or B or C.”
The openendedness of the talks is part of the reason why they’re unlikely to succeed however. As Professor Stephen Walt explains at Foreign Policy, “the Obama Administration is about to repeat the same mistakes that doomed the Clinton Administration’s own Middle East peacemaking efforts and the Bush Administration’s even more halfhearted attempts.” The goal of the direct talks is rumored to be the signing of a “framework agreement” between the two sides which could be implemented over a period of up to ten years. According to Walt, we have seen this movie before.
This idea sounds a lot like the Oslo Accords, which also laid out a “framework” for peace, but deferred the hard issues to the end and repeatedly missed key deadlines. Or maybe it’s another version of the Road Map/Annapolis summit, which offered deadlines and bold talk and led precisely nowhere. Or perhaps what they have in mind is a “shelf agreement” — a piece of paper that sits “on the shelf” until conditions are right (i.e., forever).
Unless the new “framework” is very specific about the issues that really matter — borders, refugees, the status of East Jerusalem — Walt fears that “we will once again have a situation where spoilers on both sides have both an incentive and the opportunity to do whatever they can to disrupt the process.”
The great paradox of the negotiations is that United States is clearly willing and able to put great pressure on both Fatah and Hamas (albeit in different ways), even though that is like squeezing a dry lemon by now. Fatah has already recognized Israel’s existence and has surrendered any claims to 78 percent of original Mandate Palestine; all they are bargaining over now is the share they will get of the remaining 22 percent. Moreover, that 22 percent is already dotted with Israeli settlements (containing about 500,000 people), and carved up by settler-only bypass roads, checkpoints, fences, and walls. And even if they were to get an independent state on all of that remaining 22 percent (which isn’t likely) they will probably have to agree to some significant constraints on Palestinian sovereignty and they are going to have to compromise in some fashion on the issue of the “right of return.” The obvious point is that when you’ve got next to nothing, you’ve got very little left to give up, no matter how hard Uncle Sam twists your arm.
Little wonder The Jerusalem Post is skeptical, comparing the peace talks with an arranged marriage where neither the bridge nor the groom is in love. “Both reluctantly agree to stand under the huppa only because their parents — upon whom they are both still very much dependent — demand it,” writes the newspaper’s Herb Keinon. The parents being the president and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in this case.
According to Keinon, both sides have indicated that they don’t really think it’ll work out. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the radical Yisrael Beiteinu party, has been lowering expectations in particular, though considering his nationalistic political background, this shouldn’t be all too surprising. Still, it does seem as though the only ones bearing a semblance of optimism are Western negotiators, including George Mitchell and former British prime minister Tony Blair who has been the West’s permanent representative in the conflict area since leaving office in 2007.
Abbas and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet with President Obama today. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan will also attend the ceremony — “in view of their critical role in this effort,” said Clinton last week. All statesmen, Tony Blair included, will dine at the White House on September 1. The next day, Abbas and Netanyahu will head down to the State Department for trilateral meetings presided by Hillary Clinton.
The fact that Secretary Clinton, not the president, is spearheading the negotiations is no accident, according to Ben Smith of Politico. Early in his presidency, Obama attempted to reinvigorate the peace process by demanding a settlement freeze from the Israelis. Netanyahu offered a compromise: a ten month freeze (which will end this month), exempting Jerusalem as well as the construction of schools, synagogues and 3,000 homes that were already under construction. The administration rejected the deal and in doing so, strengthened the Palestinians in their resolve. Obama admitted his mistake last January and apparently chose to let things run their course for a while after that.
But, notes Smith, Obama is a man who thinks president should do big things and hasn’t given up yet. “Why should Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton be the only ones to get those great handshake pictures?” So, this time around, he will let Hillary Clinton test the waters. “If this thing actually gets rolling, Air Force One is all gassed up and ready to sweep into the region to close the deal.”