What to Think of the Talks, Part 1

Can peace be achieved? What do the 'experts' think?

It has been a while since I’ve had time to sit down and actually write about what has been happening in the region – which is unfortunate considering the events that have transpired over the last two weeks: mainly the resumption of direct talks between Israel and Palestine under the auspices of the United States.  What do I think of the talks?  We’ll get to that later.  First, lets take a look at what some others think.  A while ago Ma’an News published the view points of a number of prominent politicians and journalists spanning most of the political spectrum.  Read the entire piece, but here are some tidbits:

Maen Areikat, ambassador of the PLO General Delegation to Washington, DC:

So I’m realistic, not optimistic. If these negotiations conclude successfully, which is the hope of all of us, nobody neither in Gaza nor in the West Bank will object. We’ve said in the past that any agreement we sign with Israel will be presented to the Palestinian people for referendum. And we will submit any agreement for approval. The position of the Palestinian leadership is that we should always seek peace, because we believe that we have a just and noble cause. If there’s even a glimmer of hope, we should pursue it. But we are not going to get peace at any cost.

David Ha’ivri, executive director of the Shomron Liaison Office, northern West Bank:

These talks are not about Israel and the Palestinian Authority and not even about Netanyahu and Abbas. This charade is all about Obama, who is losing popularity in both Muslim and Jewish support bases in America. The results of these talks are completely secondary to the main agenda of this event. America’s unaccomplished president will have his prize as soon as he finishes posing with the two leaders and can hang that picture next to similar ones of Jimmy Carter and George Bush. He will then go down in photo history as the man who brought peace to the Middle East. That will complement the Nobel Peace Prize that he received with no effort.

Ali Abunimah, journalist and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website:

Away from this distraction, there is a real peace process. It is the grassroots struggle that unites all Palestinians seeking an end to the 1967 occupation, the oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the restoration of the rights of refugees. This struggle for basic, universally recognized rights is supported by a growing global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement modeled on the successful anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s. BDS scares Israel much more than the “direct talks” in which it knows it will have to concede nothing. Pressure on Israel will never come from the so-called international community and its self-appointed bodies such as the Quartet. It will come from Palestinians themselves and those who are in solidarity with them. It is this real peace process that deserves our full support and attention.

Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now in Washington, DC:

At the same time, I’m not popping open the champagne just yet. I’m less interested in celebrating the start of negotiations, and more interested in making sure that behind this pomp and circumstance will be a push for peace that can get the job done. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been launched time and again over the past 17 years. Some of these efforts floundered because key political leaders — Israeli, Palestinian, and American — failed to show the leadership necessary to go the distance. Other times, spoilers — terrorists, assassins, and others — managed to derail the talks.

Stephen Walt has, of course, added his thoughts as well:

Here’s the basic problem: Unless the new “framework” is very detailed and specific about the core issues — borders, the status of East Jerusalem, the refugee issue, etc., — 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. And even if it were close to a detailed final-status agreement, a ten-year implementation schedule provides those same spoilers (or malevolent third parties) with all the time they will need to try to derail the deal. I can easily imagine Netanyahu and other hardliners being happy with this arrangement, as they would be able to keep expanding settlements (either openly or covertly) while the talks drag on, which is what has happened ever since Oslo (and under both Likud and Labor governments). Ironically, some members of Hamas might secretly welcome this outcome too, because it would further discredit moderates like Abbas and Fayyad. And there is little reason to think the United States would do a better job of managing the process than it did in 1990s.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy added another collection of thoughts from leading thinkers.  Again, read the whole thing, but here are some more tidbits:

Dr. Robert Danin, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:

[tweetmeme] Despite these setbacks, there is reason to be hopeful. Polls show that most Israelis and Palestinians share the same ultimate goal: to live side-by-side in two states, peacefully and securely. The latest Hamas terrorist attack notwithstanding, security forces on both sides are cooperating closely, transforming even the most dangerous cities of Hebron and Jenin into reasonably safe areas.

Mr. Gaith al-Omari is advocacy director of the American Task Force on Palestine and a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas:

Progress on the ground is equally important, as it is the only way to alleviate public frustration associated with the essential secrecy of negotiations. Palestinians must deepen their progress on the security front, while Israel should encourage Palestinian freedom of movement. In addition, Abbas and Netanyahu should use September 26 — the day the Israeli settlement moratorium is due to expire — as an opportunity to show their publics that compromises must be made. At the end of the day, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Dr. Abdel Monem Said Aly is chairman of the board of the al-Ahram Foundation and director of the al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo.

In forecasting the prospects for success, one should not underestimate the accumulated record of past negotiations, the Arab League’s support for the new talks, and the fact that Israeli and Arab interests are increasingly merging in that both worry about the Iranian nuclear threat. At the same time, the cost of failure is exceptionally high: failed negotiations could even lead to war under certain conditions.

Makovsky adds some thought as well.  David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Institute and director of its Project on the Middle East Peace Process, just returned from a six-week research trip to Israel and the West Bank.

To improve chances of success, the negotiators should focus on borders and security — where differences are, in principle, quite bridgeable — while conditioning the public to accept agreements on the more difficult issues of Jerusalem and refugees. As the talks progress, both parties can mitigate widespread cynicism by working toward synchronized public messaging that emphasizes the other side’s progress. Meanwhile, Arab nations should reciprocate Israeli concessions with gradual but substantive measures signaling that the Arab League’s peace plan has real content.

Philipp Weiss, the creator of Mondoweiss has an adds his thoughts:

Atallah and Levy are two-state guys. I will get to their hopes in a moment, out of fairness, but the thrust of the conversation was that we might be looking at the funeral of the two-state solution. With fewer adherents than ever. With the Israeli government incapable of making any concession on the colonial expansion that is its political base, and with a half of a half of a political loaf from the Palestinians. How many people still believe in it? And Levy said that if Abbas comes back with incremental gains, there’s a huge risk, “violence far exceeding what is taking place now” in the West Bank…

Both men were clear about where things go if the talks fail. It will lead to more debate about the one state solution, Levy said. “That’s the trajectory it eventually goes on.” And Atallah: “I agree with Daniel, that’s where it’s headed.”

One state.

Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now adds:

There are good reasons to be skeptical that these talks will succeed, and the reasons for skepticism are clear:  the readiness and ability of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to deliver their respective sides of a peace agreement is in doubt; President Obama has yet to demonstrate the kind of hands-on, “I-will-not-let-this-fail” engagement that will be necessary for talks to succeed; and of course, spoilers will be out in force, seeking through actions and words to provoke hatred and anger, to undermine trust, and, if possible, to destroy this new peace process.

That said, there are also reasons to be hopeful that these talks can succeed.  With most attention these days focused on the reasons for skepticism, we think this is an important time to look seriously at these reasons for hope.

The New York Times published an editorial supporting the talks, but remaining realistic:

We have long been skeptical that Mr. Netanyahu really wants a deal. But he insisted he had come to “find a historic compromise” that would end the conflict and that he recognizes that “another people shares this land with us.” He even told Mr. Abbas, “you are my partner in peace.” We will soon see if it was all political theater.

Mr. Abbas came to the table reluctantly. He is the weaker party and most at risk of being blamed for any breakdown. Still, he promised to “work to make these negotiations succeed” and said security — a major issue for Israel — “is vital for both of us.”

Ahmad Tibi, writing in the LA Times

I am not alone in being pessimistic. Most Palestinians are. Young people in particular have been betrayed. A whole generation of Palestinians has grown up watching as talks failed. They have seen deepening colonization rather than freedom.

To succeed this time, the international community, and the U.S. most particularly, will have to press Netanyahu. Despite a good start to his presidency, Obama has spent the last few months complying with the demands of right-wing Israelis. His recent rhetoric and actions indicate he lacks the intestinal fortitude to stand up to Netanyahu. And, were he to unexpectedly challenge the prime minister on settlements, as he did early in his administration, he would be excoriated by members of the U.S. Congress who tolerate little opposition to Israeli policy.

The direct talks are likely to falter quickly. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has already written to Obama that a resumption of settlement activity by the Israelis will doom these negotiations. Abbas was very clear: “If Israel resumes settlement activities in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, we cannot continue negotiations.”

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the Washington Post

The status quo, though sub-optimal, presents no imminent danger to Israel. What Israelis want from an agreement is something they have learned either to live without (Palestinian recognition) or to provide for themselves (security). The demographic threat many invoke as a reason to act — the possibility that Arabs soon might outnumber Jews, forcing Israel to choose between remaining Jewish or democratic — is exaggerated. Israel already has separated itself from Gaza. In the future, it could unilaterally relinquish areas of the West Bank, further diminishing prospects of an eventual Arab majority. Because Israelis have a suitable alternative, they lack a sense of urgency. The Palestinians, by contrast, have limited options and desperately need an agreement.

So what will happen with these talks?  Most people seem resigned to failure given the unbalanced circumstances on which these talks rest.  The argument that the current timing is better than ever before is pretty disingenuous.  It basically says that the situation is less bad, less unfair and unjust than before.  Certainly, there will probably never be an ideal time for peace talks, but it is difficult to look at these talks with any optimism.  More on my views later.

Photo from Xinhuanet

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