When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet at the State Department next week for their first direct negotiations in 20 months, predictions of quick breakthroughs and swift progress will be in short supply.
More plentiful will be warnings that the risks from a failed conference are considerable — for a region where failed negotiations often lead to new violence, for U.S. efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program and for an Obama administration that has few foreign policy triumphs to tout on the eve of critical congressional elections.
“The stakes are huge for the participants,” said Edward Walker, a onetime U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv and a veteran of previous peace efforts. “Many of my colleagues are very concerned that if this fails, it leaves [the Palestinians] with nothing to hang on to. The only option left then is the Hamas option.”
In an echo of past U.S. initiatives, unmet expectations could lead to renewed violence and further undermine both Israeli and Palestinian confidence in negotiations.
And the prospects for failure are significant, Walker said.
“You look at the composition of the Israeli government and the division of the Palestinian community, and there’s just no way to pull it all together,” he said. “The Israeli government can’t make the kinds of concessions that would allow the Palestinian leadership to convince their people that negotiations are the right answer. And [Abbas] is a weak leader who isn’t ready to move.”
Highlighting those risks was fierce diplomatic jockeying over next week’s preliminary sessions, which are meant to set the stage for the substantive meetings late in September.
Abbas said he will give the talks a month to produce results — and he defined “results” in terms of continuing Israel’s West Bank settlement freeze, which is due to expire on Sept. 26. Israel quickly responded that it would not accept preconditions for the talks, a view echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
On Monday State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged the potential deal breaker posed by the soon-to-end settlement moratorium.
“We are very mindful of the moratorium and the fact that it comes up for reconsideration during September,” Crowley said. “That’s why we want to get the negotiation. None of these issues can be resolved outside of this negotiation.”
The new talks are nominally under the auspices of the Middle East “Quartet” — the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. President Barack Obama, burned by his early demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze and the uproar that caused in pro-Israel circles, appears to be keeping his distance from the impending talks, which will take place at the U.S. State Department offices, with Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell leading the U.S. delegation.
But most observers agree this is a big roll of the dice by a president who arrived in Washington with big plans for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ideas that quickly ran afoul of that region’s treacherous realities.
A failed conference could lead to renewed Palestinian violence and further undercut support for an active peace process on both sides of the line, said Walker. It could also further weaken U.S. leadership across the region and around the world at a time when the administration faces daunting challenges on multiple fronts.
Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), argued that conditions have changed since 2000, when the failed Camp David conference led to the second intifada — and not for the better.
This time around, the Palestinians have a weak, vacillating leader with ebbing public support, and trust in the peace process has all but evaporated in Israel, she said. And “you have a president who is not esteemed in Israel as Bill Clinton was,” she said.
A failed peace conference could provoke Hamas to demand elections in the West Bank, she said — elections that could expand the group’s hold on the Palestinian electorate.
Improved economic conditions in the West Bank and growing Israeli-PA security cooperation, she said, may tamp down any violent reaction to stalemated or broken-down negotiations.
But a failure could have a devastating impact on Obama’s ability to conduct effective foreign policy in a world where his leadership is already being questioned.
“If the parties go home without a deal, the Europeans will see this as a huge waste of the prestige of the president,” Bryen said. “It will indicate to them that he doesn’t have much power, so maybe what he wants doesn’t matter very much.”
This could have a particularly pernicious impact on U.S. efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. A failed conference has a “huge potential to unravel the single coalition that means the most — the Western coalition against Iran,” she said.
Another veteran observer who asked not to be named said the failure of the high-profile U.S. initiative will “open the door to much greater European involvement in the peace process — which can’t possibly be good for Israel.”
But there are also risks to not bringing the parties together for direct talks, other analysts suggest.
Samuel Lewis, another former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said he has “low expectations” for the talks and that he expects Hamas leaders to “do their best to blow them up.”
“But there is a bigger risk in doing nothing,” he said. “If the Obama administration didn’t succeed in getting them back to the table after a year and a half, you can assume there would have been an explosion.”
Politically, the risks for Obama seem obvious on the surface, but they may be dwarfed in comparison to the other problems he faces as critical congressional midterm elections approach and the national mood sours.
A high-profile Middle East peace flop could add to the impression of an administration that has fumbled on a range of key foreign policy issues. That, and claims that Obama pushed Israel into a peace conference that was doomed from the outset, could provide rich new fodder for Republicans who have portrayed his administration’s foreign policy as a kind of rerun of Jimmy Carter’s.
The political risks of a failed conference are “tremendous,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn, a close follower of Jewish politics. “If the Israelis or the Palestinians allow the U.S. administration to look bad on this, it could be tremendously damaging for Obama, politically.”
But University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said a failed Middle East peace process is the least of Obama’s political problems.
“Some voters may care, but there aren’t many who would elevate the eternal topic of Middle East peace talks above the rotten economy, which has become the black hole of this fall’s election,” he said. “Maybe if the talks don’t go well, it will add to the image of an administration bogged down in troubles, but that storyline is already set.”
And if the administration succeeds in defying the odds and setting in motion an ongoing peace process that satisfies leaders on both sides and reassures their nervous publics, it could offer a modest boost for a president whose standing with voters continues to sink and for Democratic members of Congress who fear a fight with the administration over politically explosive issues involving Israel just before critical midterm elections.
Some analysts say the risks aren’t so great — if the administration has learned from its past mistakes and keeps its eye on the likely minefields ahead.
Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official and peace process veteran who has grown skeptical of U.S. efforts, said the primary motivation for the new talks isn’t an inflated sense of the potential for a breakthrough — but the perceived need “to preempt what was going to be a crisis with the expiration of the [settlement-building] moratorium on September 26.”
At the same time, he said, the administration wants to “recalibrate and reset” its relationship with Netanyahu. “They know they can’t pander to him and they can’t punish him; they have to find a way to work with him.”
The fate of the talks depend to a great extent “on whether Bibi will give more than his public position allows — and whether Abbas accepts somewhat less than his public position has allowed,” Miller said. “In the middle could be the making of a deal. What needs to be sorted out by the administration: how to test that assumption without creating a huge crisis very quickly or exposing an empty process.”
The administration needs to proceed “with great care,” he said. “You have to be smart about these talks. Let them go for a while. Don’t try to be too clever by signaling a heavier American role. Don’t be intrusive. You pushed for direct negotiations; now let them play out.”