If I Were a Betting Man: Successful Proximity Talks?

Despite the pessimism and the severe consequences of failure, peace talks must restart

The proximity talks between Israel and Palestine have finally begun this week and it is difficult to predict how successful (if at all) they will be.  There have been plenty of voices arguing the demise of the talks before they even began, while others simply argue that hope for success must not be lost.  With tensions between Israel and its neighbors steadily at a high, continued violence in Gaza and construction problems across the occupied territories, it is not surprising that there are doubts.  Despite these doubts, there is a real chance that the talks will lead to direct negotiations in four months.  However, a breakdown of talks could have disastrous results.

The talks – which are apparently supported by 60% of the Palestinians – started on an interesting note.  At first glance, the decision by Israeli PM Netanyahu to freeze the construction in Ramot Schlomo (East Jerusalem – the construction that was announced during American VP Joe Biden’s visit) for two years sounds like a courageous act of confidence building.  That is until one realizes that the construction was not slated to begin for two years anyway.

There are reasons to belief that the talks could be successful, though.  As Rami Khouri points out, restarting the talks demonstrates a determination of the US to find a solution to this ongoing problem.  Further, it demonstrates that the US sees the persistence of the occupation as a threat to its goals and interests abroad.  In official talks, the US might be more willing to pressure (not publicly) both sides to agree on certain issues; likewise, US mediator George Mitchell and President Obama, by becoming more involved, are given the chance to (again, not publicly) suggest alternatives to bridge the gaps between Israel and Palestine.

[tweetmeme] I agree with Khouri that the US (perhaps even Obama) will become more involved now that talks are official, but Khouri’s optimism is based on the assumption that the US has not offered solutions and pressure privately before the talks began.  Mitchell has been shuffling back and forth between Palestine and Israel for weeks; it is difficult to believe that the US did not offer suggestions to bring the sides together on various issues.

There are many reasons to doubt the success to the talks.  Firstly, there are rumors that the talks themselves are simply a shame.  One theory holds that Israel and Palestine only agreed to enter into negotiations to show the US that the other side is standing in the way of peace:

Palestinian officials in Ramallah have suggested that the Palestinian leadership opted to restart stalled talks “first and foremost in order to appease Washington and prove to the Obama administration that Israel, not the Palestinians, was the real impeder of peace.” “I think President Abbas wanted to prove to the Americans that he is still the nice guy and that Netanyahu was the villain,” said a PA operative close to Abbas’s coterie of aides and advisors.

The operative, who was not authorised to speak to the press, added that, “Abbas and the entire Palestinian leadership knew quite well that there was zero per cent chance that the restarted talks would succeed.” “We simply don’t want to lose the public relations showdown with Israel because what is happening is a public relations battle, not real peace efforts.”

If this is true, the parties start the talks with a very unhelpful first step.  However, simply getting the two sides to talk should be helpful.  Simply continuing the stalemate and bickering through the press does not help peace.  Furthermore, there have been reports that Netanyahu has assured the US that Israel will refrain from construction in the occupied territories for the duration of the talks.  If this is true, steps towards peace could easily be made.

According to some, the three parties involved in the talks all have different goals.  For the Americans, the goal of the proximity talks is final status talks and, eventually, a comprehensive peace.  For the Palestinians and Israelis, it is very possible that the real goal of the talks is simply not to look bad:

The first objective is maintaining a process for the sake of the process. For Israel, the ongoing process mitigates the international pressure exerted on us; for the Palestinian leadership, the process is the main justification for the continued rule of the veteran leadership. Hence, the very existence of a process is vital for the sake of both sides’ political survival.

The second objective of both Israelis and Palestinians is to ensure that when the current round of talks fails, the other side will be blamed for it.

Both arguments make sense.  If a comprehensive peace is forged, both Israel and Palestine will need to make painful concessions that could easily undermine the government.  Israel’s right-wing coalition government is far more supportive of the settlers than the peace process and could easily crumble if Israel, for example, officially conceded East Jerusalem to the Palestinians.  For Palestine, a peace agreement could include to renunciation of the right of return – a fundamental pillar in the Palestinian argument.  If Abbas agrees to give up this right, he will surely lose his position in the government as well.

To make matters worse, the talks are only a continuation of the inherently flawed Bush philosophy of ‘West Bank first.’  Gaza and the Hamas leadership are completely left out of the process – meaning, of course, that they could undermine the talks at any point.  Indeed, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine both oppose the talks.  Thus, while a majority of Palestinians think the talks are good, a number of Palestinian political institutions believe the talks are useless.  The same, of course, can be said for Israel, whose Deputy Prime Minister recently declared, “This won’t work — indirect talks, proximity talks will not yield results.”

Of course, all this pessimism does not necessarily doom the talks.  Lasting four months, it is entirely possible that the proximity talks evolve into something more serious.  Netanyahu has said that he wants the proximity talks should quickly move to direct negotiations and, if he proves willing and capable of stopping construction during the talks, the two sides might find enough common ground to move forward.

The consequences of failure are dire though.  With many people discussing the possible death of the two-state solution, the quick failure of these talks could make the one-state solution bandwagon very appealing for many more people.  Failure of the talks would also strengthen the Netanyahu coalition which is mainly supported by right-wing settler groups while weakening Mahmoud Abbas and further separating the politics of the West Bank and Gaza.

The next four months will be very telling.  It is far too early to predict the outcome of the American brokered talks, as they could easily fall either way.  There is certainly real pessimism for these talks as the consequences of failure are deep; failed talks would create severe domestic problems in Israel and Palestine as well as  internationally.  However, pessimism sometimes leads to being easily and pleasantly surprised.

Photo from Rian.ru

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