By Meretz USA Executive Director, Ron Skolnik
Proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians are set to begin next week. Now hit the snooze button.
I don’t mean to be snide, or to belittle the sincere efforts of President Obama and his team. And I don’t even mean to say that no talks are better for the Middle East than the upcoming indirect ones. Communication trumps violence any time.
I just haven’t yet seen anyone offer a persuasive political analysis that demonstrates just how these talks are going to make significant progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It’s become a cliché to note that negotiations are a means, not an end, and that it’s pointless (perhaps counterproductive) to hold “negotiations for negotiations’ sake”.
But if that’s the case, it’s hard to visualize the end that Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas will achieve if left to their own tactical devices. Netanyahu’s diplomat-in-chief, Avigdor Lieberman, has already begun to blame the Palestinians for the breakdown of the talks – that haven’t even begun – while Abbas has been warning similarly about the “stubborn” Israeli government, and cautioning of a future Palestinian “reassessment” should the talks fail.
Sometimes a bit of pessimism from the diplomats is a good thing – to throw cold water on overheated expectations, or as a smokescreen to cover up significant backchannel progress. But “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” – perhaps the pessimism emanating from the region is simply an accurate reflection of the yawning chasm between the current Israeli and Palestinian positions?
Even relative optimists, such as David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concede that Jerusalem and refugees are beyond the scope of what the sides can agree upon at the moment. Makovsky does see an opening for forward movement, arguing that, “borders and security … are the issue where the differences between the parties are not too wide” – but can anyone imagine the current Netanyahu government accepting the formula apparently worked out under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in July 2008:
“The basis of negotiations would be the 4 June 1967 Map, including East Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Jordan Valley, the no-man’s land and the Gaza Strip.”
Unfortunately, it seems that both sides are entering the talks with an eye towards the Obama administration, not each other. So perhaps the absence of direct contact is appropriate.
Netanyahu will try to prove to the US that he can be serious about peace while not relenting on settlements – and meanwhile be preparing his case for discontinuing Israel’s 10-month settlement deceleration (can’t call it a freeze) when it lapses in September should proximity talks falter. “We negotiated in good faith,” he’ll likely apologize, while blaming the Palestinians for any impasse.
The Palestinians, for their part, seem inclined to go along for the proximity ride in order to prove to Washington that, “the Israeli government is just wasting our time“.
But the upcoming proximity talks shouldn’t be seen as a total loss. For one thing, you never know: Perhaps the talks will be able to generate just a hint of forward motion. And if they do, then perhaps Netanyahu will feel confident enough to finally ditch his far-right partners and make common cause with Tzippi Livni’s Kadima. Livni told Haaretz in no uncertain terms that she’s ready to enter a Netanyahu government that’s serious about peacemaking.
Just don’t hold your breath.
Nonetheless, several months of proximity talks could also be an excellent exercise in diplomacy, a much-needed element in the Obama Middle East team’s learning curve. The constant shuttling between the parties will allow George Mitchell and his aides to gather a huge amount of data about the two sides’ positions, and the extended stay in the region will give them a much better read on the prevailing mood and sensibilities within Israeli and Palestinian public opinion.
Even if the proximity talks break down, therefore, all this information can be fed back to the State Department and National Security Council in Washington so that the Obama administration can ready its next gambit, such as a Quartet-sponsored international peace conference or the unveiling of an official US plan for peace.
None of that is happening yet, of course. But set your alarms for September/October. That’s when the proximity talks reach their four-month limit; when Israel’s settlement deceleration comes to its preset end; when the Knesset returns from its long summer recess; and when the UN General Assembly is set to convene.
In the meantime, you can probably catch a few more winks. I’ll wake you if there’s anything major going on!