There were rays of optimism following Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Tuesday in Egypt, but the real test may come here next week when world leaders gather for the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
“If the Palestinians want an agreement, they cannot campaign against the legitimacy of Israel at the United Nations,” said Eytan Gilboa, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Talks do not go together with anti-Israel activity. So if they are serious and interested in the negotiations, they should tell the Arab League to cool it.”
From next Thursday until Sept. 29, heads of state and government delegates will speak from the podium about world problems. In previous years, Arab League countries routinely used the General Assembly as an international platform from which to criticize Israel.
Zalman Shoval, Israel’s former representative to the United States and now an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed concern that such attacks this year “might undermine any chance of the talks going forward. … The Palestinians and the Arab world must stop the incitement against Israel.”
An opinion poll published Tuesday in Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper found that 71 percent of 501 Israelis polled by the Dehaf Research Institute don’t believe the talks will produce an agreement. That is all the more reason, Shoval suggested, for the “Palestinians with the help of the Arab world to make a major psychological effort to show they are serious about peace. Unless they do that, the chances of peace are seriously diminished.”
Although Israelis may not have hope in the peace talks, it would be “ridiculous” to believe they don’t want peace, according to Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
He said he was in Israel two weeks ago leading a delegation of ethnic and religious leaders, and had a chance to meet with Israelis who perform a variety of work.
“They all want to lead a normal life,” Miller said. “There is nothing more that Israelis want than peace. Virtually everybody with whom we met talked about achieving peace. They spoke about security and safety, and having a better and brighter future. They didn’t talk about what the price would be, but as citizens of Israel they wanted an environment of tranquility.”
“The Israelis we met are realists, because they have lived through so much over the last 62 years and they know that things can change in an instant,” he added, referring to previous attacks on civilians by Hamas and Hezbollah.
Gilboa pointed out that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “went to the Arab League to receive its support for his negotiations” with Israel. He said Abbas’ predecessor, Yasir Arafat, “never did that, and it indicates how weak he is.”
However, he said, Abbas is now in a position to go back to the Arab League “and say the talks are encouraging and we need your support. … The UN is supposed to encourage negotiations, not undermine them.”
David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process, said that Netanyahu has shown “some flexibility” regarding the partial building freeze in settlements that is slated to expire Sept. 26.
“There are all sorts of ideas out there on how to solve it,” he told a conference call arranged by the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group. “Israel has to decide what will work domestically and then take it to President Abbas. This will be the key issue this month. If it could be resolved before the UN meeting, it would take the air out of the critics of Israel.”
Shoval said an unscheduled round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Tuesday in Egypt buoyed hopes that both sides were making progress in bridging gaps that have divided them for years.
“The talks were supposed to end with a half-festive luncheon,” he said. “But then there was another meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas; I think [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton dropped in from time to time” in her role as mediator.
“Nobody can say for certain what transpired there, but the feeling is that they were looking for a way to minimize [the settlement issue],” Shoval said. “I would not be surprised that without making any declarations Israel will resume building, especially in the large settlements and Jerusalem, but not make much ballyhoo about it. And the Palestinians will hopefully not make too much noise about it, either.”
But he cautioned that although that issue might be resolved quickly, the final status issues — borders, the future of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, settlements, security and Palestinian prisoners — are going to take time. The Palestinians have insisted on resolving the issue of borders first; Israel wants to first resolve the issue of security.
“There is no way the question of borders is going to be resolved by Sept. 26,” Shoval said. “These are very difficult issues and there is no way to settle them anytime soon. They have to be settled gradually. Maybe there will at first be an agreement in principle in which they agree on the parameters.”
Another positive sign that the talks appear to be going well is that the media has been excluded from the talks, Gilboa observed. He said those doing the negotiating have “made no statements, given any interviews or held any press conferences.”
“In talks like these it is very difficult to make progress and the necessary concessions needed to move forward if the parties are talking to the media all the time,” Gilboa explained.
And yet another positive sign, he added, is that Netanyahu has said the “decisions need to be made by the chief policy makers — that there should not be too many teams of low-level negotiators. And he suggested that he and Abbas meet every two weeks.”
Also optimistic about the talks was Hirsh Goodman, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, who also noted that Abbas was representing the 2.5 million Palestinians living in east Jerusalem and the West Bank but not the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
“He is not speaking for all Palestinians, but the West Bank is very important to Israel and refining Israel’s relationship with the West Bank is very important,” he said. “I see this as a positive dynamic happening at a time of prosperity in the West Bank.”
The International Monetary Fund reported this week that economic growth in the West Bank increased by 9 percent in the first half of this year. But it warned that unless the peace process bears fruit, similar growth is not possible because Israel prohibits Palestinians from developing about 60 percent of the West Bank.
Goodman argued, however, that civil institutions appear to be working in the West Bank, as well as security forces and a non-corrupt government.
“The government has credibility and stability and the moment it has that there is investment coming,” he said. “You don’t need a peace treaty for this to happen.”
Goodman noted that within two days of the murder last month of four Israelis shot dead by Palestinians in their car in the West Bank, Palestinian police had arrested suspects in the case.
“I’m not saying peace is around the corner,” he stressed. “But at least there is a responsible and feasible dynamic on the ground.”