Rarely have peace negotiations started with such low expectations — but that doesn’t mean the indirect “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians, due to begin as early as this week with new rounds of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, are doomed to failure.
While suggesting that major breakthroughs are unlikely, many analysts say the talks could prove fruitful, but only if the Obama administration understands the limitations of what the parties themselves can reasonably be expected to do.
“There’s very little new here,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Everybody has been around this track many times before. The goal has to be to look for low-hanging fruit, where you have some knowledge of overlapping or converging positions, and hope that over time this builds trust and momentum.”
Some observers suggest the talks are more of a diplomatic gambit meant to fail, thereby providing justification for what they say the administration really wants — an American peace plan that was widely rumored to be in the works several weeks ago.
One pro-Israel hardliner disagreed.
“My impression is that the administration is more keenly aware of the limits of any American plan than some of the pundits who favor it,” said Steve Rosen, a former top AIPAC official and now director of the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum. “I doubt this is something they feel they should hurry to do.”
Several observers said even modest movement in the indirect talks could create the conditions for a broadened coalition government in Jerusalem — which, in turn, could accelerate movement toward direct talks.
The talks also have high political stakes in Washington. Jewish Democrats, worried about the Obama administration’s early missteps in the region and a possible backlash by pro-Israel campaign givers and voters, are hoping the talks will produce enough progress to forestall the possibility they will be forced by political factors to speak out against a president of their own party.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Jewish delegation on Capitol Hill, said that while the fundamental U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong, “the administration’s strategies are not clear, and that is causing anxiety. If these proximity talks produce some results, I think a lot of that anxiety will be alleviated. And our concerns about a unilateral U.S. peace plan will be alleviated.”
On Monday President Barack Obama briefed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on U.S. plans for the talks, making it clear that he hopes to use them to transition “to direct negotiations as soon as possible,” according to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. Obama also “reaffirmed his unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” one more step in the administration’s ongoing campaign of reassurance.
On the eve of the talks, administration officials continue stepping away from earlier comments suggesting they see the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as grave threats to U.S. interests around the world and even to American troops in places like Afghanistan.
Speaking to the Anti-Defamation League on Monday, senior National Security Council staffer Dan Shapiro offered the most explicit repudiation of that idea yet, saying “We do not believe that resolving this conflict will bring an end to all conflicts in the Middle East. … We do not believe it would cause Iran to end its unacceptable pursuit of nuclear weapons. … We do not believe that this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
But officials have not backed away from assertions that breaking the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate remains a top administration priority.
Some leading analysts, while saying that major breakthroughs are unlikely, argue that the indirect negotiations could be more than just diplomatic marching in place.
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the “advantage of proximity talks is that they avoid frontal collisions at the negotiating table. They give the mediator some wiggle room to explore issues on a variety of questions without necessarily leading to a blowup.”
But indirect talks are just the opening move, he said. “There are advantages to this kind of process, as long as it leads to direct talks as soon as possible.”
The best focus for the talks, he said, “will be borders and security; these are the issue where the differences between the parties are not too wide.”
Progress on those issues, he said, could set the stage for the direct negotiations that will still be required to move on to the most contentious issues, including Jerusalem and refugees.
While advocates for an aggressive U.S. peace plan apparently lost the current round in the administration’s internal tug of war over Middle East policy, “if the proximity talks fail, clearly that will become the default option again,” he said.
The new talks could also set the stage for a reconfiguration in the Israeli government — which Makovsky believes is essential for any real peace process progress.
“My personal view is that for this to succeed there will have to be a broader Israeli coalition,” he said. “I don’t think Prime Minister Netanyahu can do that now; the results would be convulsive. But if there is progress in the proximity talks that may set the stage for that kind of change. The prime minister won’t be happy, but it may be the only way, and he needs the certainty of progress before he makes that decision.”
Makovsky’s cautious hopefulness is widely shared by Jewish leaders — but far from universal.
Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), said the indirect talks are based on a faulty premise that all but guarantees their failure.
In the past two years, she said, Israel and the Fatah leadership in the West Bank worked out a new paradigm focusing on economic and political advancement for the Palestinians and expanded security cooperation that served the interests of both.
“The Oslo accords died, and they were replaced by a very different kind of understanding,” she said. “And then along came Barack Obama, who doesn’t understand any of this, and demanded an independent Palestinian state when the Palestinians can’t possibly secure one.”
That, she said, put Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a box.
“If President Obama says there should be a Palestinian state in two years, how can Abbas demand any less?” she said. “So the proximity talks aren’t going anywhere because they are based on false premises.”
Jewish pro-peace process groups, while disappointed the administration has backed away from a more muscular diplomatic approach, are hopeful the indirect talks will lead to a rejuvenated peace process with Washington taking the aggressive lead.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, said in a statement: “While the start of talks is a step in the right direction, those committed to ending the conflict peacefully should remain focused not on maintaining a process but concluding it successfully. This will require moving quickly to address the final-status issues at the core of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution.”
That means a willingness to “press both sides to take the hard decisions required to resolve the conflict,” he said.
In private, several pro-peace process activists said they worry that the administration, stung and surprised by the intensity of the Jewish response to its initial Middle East forays, may be using low-level proximity talks as a way to avoid politically risky pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians.
“I think the administration is still looking for a strategy,” said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs.
These proximity talks may be a start, she said “but it depends on what the U.S. puts into it. At this stage, it’s just not clear.”
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