Any day now, if the recent reports are to be believed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will agree to direct talks with Israel, and those talks will commence. The question this raises is quite a simple one: what’s the point?
President Obama has been pushing hard for these direct talks and he’s about to get them; but it seems he is mis-reading the circumstances under which they are to take place. He correctly believes that the two sides must talk and come to agreement, but Obama is ignoring the fact is that neither party is entering these talks in a mood, or even a position, to seriously negotiate.
This was made abundantly clear last weekend. Benjamin Netanyahu approved the construction of 23 new structures in the settlements for classrooms, on the heels of reports that Abbas was ready to finally give in and agree to talks.
For their part, 11 Palestinian factions, including Hamas as well as members of the PLO, issued a statement denouncing any compromise with “the Zionist entity.” While that won’t stop Abbas agreeing to the talks, it serves as a stark reminder of the problem he has in convincing anyone, including the Americans and Israelis, that he can deliver on an agreement if one is reached.
The fractious state of both Israeli and Palestinian politics, as well as looming Democratic setbacks in mid-term elections this November, make this an entirely inopportune time for Obama to push for direct talks.
One gets the impression that Obama is pressing for the talks for no other reason than that he said he would. That may not be a totally empty reason, but it’s not sufficient to jump start talks which have little hope of success.
It need not be this way, but the only real chance for successful negotiations lies down a path which seems very unlikely to be taken, and that’s a firm American role encompassing both a vision of an endgame and a willingness to press both parties seriously for results.
At this point, there is no consensus among Israelis backing the kinds of concessions that would be necessary to close a deal—territorial compromise along the lines of the 1967 borders with one-to-one land swaps in terms of both quantity and quality of land and a shared Jerusalem. An Israeli government that wanted to promote such a deal might be able to do so, given some time, but this, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history (and, importantly, the most stable coalition Israel has seen in a very long time) is not going to do that.
Mahmoud Abbas is not going to be able to sell a peace deal that doesn’t include Gaza. Indeed, it will be tough enough to sell a deal that forgoes the Palestinian “right of return,” even though most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories understand that any peace deal will include this sacrifice. But they will not accept the division of the West Bank and Gaza on top of that.
The only way to bring about an agreement under these circumstances is through considerable external pressure, in the form of both carrots and sticks. And the sticks cost a great deal of political capital for those who wield them, especially American leaders.
It’s not only the United States that will need to bring pressure. The Arab states, the European Union and the United Nations would have to as well. But all of it begins with an American vision of the final status agreement, one which needs to be articulated by the President himself.
Obama needs to state clearly the framework of the 1967 borders, with appropriate one-to-one land swaps; a shared Jerusalem along the lines of the Clinton Parameters vision; an international fund for resettling and compensating Palestinian refugees who will, with no more than token exceptions, be allowed to return only to the new Palestinian state; equitable water arrangements; and a framework for economic cooperation between the two states.
Nothing there is really new; these have been the key components of almost every speculative agreement since the Oslo Accords were signed. But just by articulating such a vision, Obama will be accused of imposing a solution on Israel. And after that, he will need to pressure Israel into moving forward, pressure similar to that which he used to insist on a settlement freeze.
Obama would then need to work with Arab states to isolate Hamas and portray them as preventing an end to the Occupation if they do not consent to being junior partners under Fatah’s leadership of the Palestinian Authority and accepting these terms of an agreement.
In all of this, Obama will need to cooperation of the Arab League and the European Union, as well as Russia and, if the UN is needed, China’s consent at least as well.
That’s a tall order. Most importantly, it carries virtually zero short-term political benefit for Obama. It is frankly inconceivable that he would exert such pressure on Israel before the November elections. It will gain him nothing and would jeopardize Democratic congressional campaigns. It would be an unpopular stance both publicly and with political movers and shakers.
Obama might gamble on such a stance after November; if he believes it could pay dividends before November 2012, it would be just the sort of boost he needs. But it is out of the question right now, and his track record of avoiding domestic confrontations whenever possible suggests it isn’t all that likely later.
So, we have talks that have very little chance of success and the consequences of their failure are serious. Even if Obama doesn’t repeat the horrible error of Bill Clinton in putting all the blame on the Palestinian side (Arafat deserved plenty of blame, but Clinton and Barak had plenty of their own that they shifted on to him as well, as I recount here), failed talks will only further erode Abbas’ standing and will bolster Hamas’ contention that negotiations with Israel are a dead-end.
For his part, Netanyahu will have all the evidence he needs to “prove” that the Palestinians either don’t want peace or are incapable of reaching an agreement. There is also a distinct possibility that violence will rise after such failure, even if it is not caused by it—tensions over Jerusalem are boiling alongside this drama.
Obama is unlikely to take on the monumental task of really pushing for a final status agreement. The only alternative to that level of American involvement is a sea change in Israel toward an agreement like the Geneva Initiative and a sudden ability for Fatah and Hamas to join together in a Palestinian government that can make peace along these lines. Neither of those things seems likely in the near future.
Before Obama turned up the heat on direct talks, Abbas was insisting that proximity talks needed to show more results before moving on to the next phase. It may well turn out that Obama should have heeded those warnings.