If you believe the conventional wisdom, nothing good is likely to come out of the Israeli-Palestinian “proximity talks” that will begin as soon as this week under the auspices of U.S. special negotiator George Mitchell.
There’s some solid logic behind that perception, but there is also a danger: in the Middle East, hopelessness is a contagion that can only result in more bloodshed and misery to populations that have known too much of both for generations.
In some ways the indirect talks are a step backward from earlier rounds of negotiations. Mitchell’s shuttle diplomacy will take the place of face-to-face talks; issues being discussed will be carefully limited to avoid another setback to an administration that mishandled its early Middle East efforts. But that doesn’t mean the talks are doomed to irrelevance, and it certainly doesn’t mean our community should scoff at the effort.
Grandiose Middle East plans and high-profile conferences create the illusion of motion, but in today’s climate of pervasive mistrust and political weakness on both sides, a more circumscribed, low-key approach might just recover some of the ground lost in the past few years.
To be effective, though, the proximity talks must provide a clear route to the face-to-face talks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deems essential. They must focus on issues such as borders on which there is a reasonable chance of success and avoid incendiary issues such as Jerusalem, which cannot be addressed in the current climate of mistrust and cannot be resolved through indirect negotiations.
We have been highly critical of the Obama administration’s early policies in the region, including its misguided demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze that it should have known was a nonstarter and its seeming unwillingness to press the Palestinians to do very much of anything. But we do not accept the notion that this administration is hostile to Israel or that it wants to “impose” an unfavorable peace agreement on the Jewish state.
Every administration faces a difficult learning curve when it comes to Middle East diplomacy; every president eventually confronts the conflict between the can-do optimism that America can solve every problem and the harsh realities of the Middle East.
There are ample indications this administration is learning from its Mideast mistakes, and we sincerely hope the talks about to begin reflect that education.
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