Ethan Bronner at NYT:
The American invitation on Friday to the Israelis and Palestinians to start direct peace talks in two weeks in Washington was immediately accepted by both governments. But just below the surface there was an almost audible shrug. There is little confidence — close to none — on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met
Instead, there is a resigned fatalism in the air. Most analysts view the talks as pairing the unwilling with the unable — a strong right-wing Israeli coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with no desire to reach an agreement against a relatively moderate Palestinian leadership that is too weak and divided to do so.
“These direct negotiations are the option of the crippled and the helpless,” remarked Zakaria al-Qaq, vice president of Al Quds University and a Palestinian moderate, when asked his view of the development. “It is an act of self-deception that will lead nowhere.”
And Nahum Barnea, Israel’s pre-eminent political columnist, said in a phone interview: “Most Israelis have decided that nothing is going to come out of it, that it will have no bearing on their lives. So why should they care?”
That such a dismissive tone comes not from the known rejectionists — the Islamists of Hamas who rule in Gaza and the leadership of the Israeli settler community in the West Bank — but from mainstream thinkers is telling of the mood.
Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up
Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:
State Department officials had been sure that the statement, a formal invitation for both parties to enter direct negotiations, would be released earlier this week. But last-minute objections from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides forced new rounds of discussions, culminating in what Reuters reported was a conference call between Quartet members Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest draft.
“There are details that are still being worked out. You could quote Yogi Berra, I suppose, ‘It’s not over till it’s over,’” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. “We think we’re very, very close to an agreement.”
Multiple diplomatic sources confirmed that the substance of the reported draft represents a compromise intended to accommodate the Palestinians’ calls for the pending Quartet statement to include several specific items that they believe are “terms of reference” for the direct talks but which the Israeli side sees as “preconditions” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to reject.
The apparent compromise would result in a statement whereby the Quartet reaffirms a “full commitment to its previous statements,” according to Reuters, a reference to the March 19 Quartet statement issued in Moscow, but doesn’t explicitly repeat certain contentious language from that document.
Among the disputed items in that statement, which Netanyahu ultimately rejected, were calls for a Palestinian state to be established in 24 months and for Israel to halt all settlement building, including natural growth of existing settlements, as well as building and evictions in East Jerusalem.
Neither side wants to be seen as resisting the move to direct talks, which the Obama administration has been pushing hard to begin before Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement moratorium expires next month. If the Quartet is able to get its new statement out Friday, it will be about a week later than State Department sources had predicted, due to some extra shuttle diplomacy that the U.S. team had not anticipated.
When Special Envoy George Mitchell traveled to the region last week, he believed he had a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the wording of the statement, but it was clear upon arrival that Abbas had additional concerns, multiple diplomatic sources said.
So, Mitchell called back home to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inform her that the Palestinians were not on board. After further negotiations, Abbas set forth his demands for what the statement should include, but when Mitchell brought those terms to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister told Mitchell he couldn’t accept them.
“We wanted the statement to include the same elements the March 19 statement included,” the PLO’s Washington representative Maen Rashid Areikat, who is in the region, told The Cable in an interview.
“The Quartet statement must be clear about how the quartet sees the terms of reference, the time frame, and the situation on the ground, such as the cessation of settlement activity,” Areikat said.
Mitchell was forced to return to Washington empty-handed, but left the National Security Council’s David Hale in the region to continue working the problem and negotiations continued.
Mitchell’s trip wasn’t a failure, according to Areikat. “I believe it was part of an overall discussion of progress with the parties, and if we see progress in the statement it will have been worth it,” he said.
Andrew Lebovich at Washington Note:
The big news today is of course the announcement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been invited to Washington at the beginning of September to engage in the first direct talks between the two sides in two years.
The stakes are high on a regional and international level, but Clinton’s announcement left many things up in the air, by refusing to endorse the pre-1967 boundary as the starting point for negotiations on borders, and leaving so-called “final status” issues, like the fate of Jerusalem, land swaps, and settlements, to be brought up when Netanyahu and Abbas decide to do so.
Still, the onus is on the United States to bring the two sides together, as President Obama will have to deal with the backlash if talks fail. As Daniel Levy, the co-director of the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force said today:
[Clinton's] announcement covered very familiar ground, following a playbook that has been tried many times and found wanting. Instead of terms of reference to guide negotiations we received today a guest list for a September 1 White House dinner – even the chaperons for that dinner have a decidedly retro ring to them – Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Mubarak. Today’s announcement could have been an opportunity to introduce some clarity to proceedings and to jumpstart real decision-making (by for instance, defining border talks as being based on ’67 lines with one-to-one land swaps). Rather we were served ambiguity, and not it seems of the constructive variety……What today’s announcement has done is to raise expectations given the one-year deadline placed on the resumed talks. Yes, deadlines have been missed before, but this time the US national interest in resolving the conflict has been placed front and center and there is now broad consensus that the two-state option is passing its sell-by date. It was the Obama administration that insisted on the direct talks format as the way forward, and the ball will now be in their court to produce results.
Lexington at The Economist:
It is easy to be cynical about the scope of this supposed breakthrough. By getting the two sides back into direct talks Mr Obama has merely returned to where George Bush was after his Annapolis summit of November 2007. Big deal: the direct talks initiated then got nowhere, even though Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, was far readier for territorial compromise than is Mr Netanyahu. Even if, by some miracle, the two men came close to agreement, Hamas is still absent from the table. This means that half of the Palestinian movement would not be party to any deal and will try hard to sabotage one. So indeed will those Israelis in Bibi’s governing coalition who for reasons of ideology, security or both vehemently oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. It is better for the parties to be talking than not talking, but a betting man would not favour the chances of a breakthrough to peace.
That said, it would be a mistake to put the chances of success entirely at nil. When Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas hit the inevitable impasse, the Americans, who intend to be actively involved in the process through the person of George Mitchell, will doubtless table a bridging proposal. And this is the point at which the script could begin to depart from the precedent Mr Bush set at Annapolis.
Mr Bush left his push in Palestine to the end of his presidency, and with the Iraq war to fight never saw the peace process as much more than a distraction or palliative. Mr Obama, on the other hand, started early, and seems determined to persevere despite the pushback he ran into from Israel’s friends in Congress after his brutal confrontation with Mr Netanyahu over settlements in the territories. America’s president, in short, shows every sign of being a true believer in the necessity of solving this conflict, not least in order to redeem the promises he gave the Muslim world in his famous Cairo speech. A year from now, when the negotiation “deadline” expires, he may be approaching the final year of his presidency—but for all the parties in the region know he might still have another four-year term ahead of him. That will make it more expensive for the Israelis or Palestinians to resist whatever bridging ideas America brings to the table.
Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:
Well there is certainly less here than even the initial Obama spin would have had us believe. It seems to be that only an initial dinner is set. (”The United States will put its imprimatur on the talks in an orchestrated series of meetings that begin with a White House dinner Sept. 1 hosted by Mr. Obama.”) Beyond that? “Within the negotiations we’ve obviously had a lot of preparatory discussions with the parties on how to structure them,and we’ll need to finalize those, so we’re not in a position now to really talk about that.” Good grief. This has all the makings of a rushed announcement to try to put a horrid week for the White House behind them.”
It is interesting that Obama’s role is not yet finalized either. In fact, as my Israel expert points out, the death knell of the talks may be Obama’s own presence. After all, the Israelis have learned the hard way not to trust him, so it’s difficult to see how his presence could be a help. The telltale sign of the level of animosity between Obama and the Jewish state – he doesn’t yet have the nerve to visit Israel, where he could very likely face angry crowds. (”‘He looks forward to an opportunity to visit Israel,’ [Dan Shapiro] said of Obama, adding that such a visit would likely include a stop in the Palestinian Territories. The visit ‘could be very valuable and very meaningful at the right time.’”) Translation: he’s not going anytime soon.
The statements by others released on Friday were indicative of the low expectations that these talks engender among knowledgeable observers. AIPAC, which is obliged to cheer each step in the fruitless “peace process,” declares that it ”welcomes the renewal of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), as announced Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and expresses its appreciation to the Obama administration for its efforts in making this goal a reality.” But even its usually bubbly tone was replaced by sober and somewhat skeptical caveats:
For talks to succeed the PA must match Israel’s commitment to conducting peace talks without preconditions or excuses, abandon its longstanding attempts to avoid making difficult choices at the negotiating table and cease incitement against Israel at home and abroad. Likewise, Arab states must heed the calls by the Obama Administration and Congress to take immediate and meaningful steps toward normalization with Israel, and they must provide the political support for the Palestinians to make the kind of significant and difficult choices that will be required.
An even more candid statement came from Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who said he was hopeful but also “wary”:
Too often such talks produce little substance, and devolve into casting unfair blame at Israel for its legitimate efforts to guard its own security, while ignoring the unending violence that is openly encouraged by Palestinian leaders. That is especially the case with negotiations that involve the United Nations, the Russians, and the Europeans. I encourage President Obama to work against that tendency, and to set the tone in these talks by stressing the very real national security concerns Israel is dealing with.
And what happens when the talks go nowhere? Will we face yet another intifada? Will the bridging proposals morph into a imposed peace plan? Who knows — not even Day 2 is set yet. The administration has imbibed the peace process Kool-Aid, but there is little evidence that it promotes peace or that the Obami are competent to oversee negotiations. And meanwhile the real Middle East crisis — the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon looms on the horizon. In a real sense, the “peace process” is nothing more than a dangerous distraction.
Coincidentally, according to today’s front-page administration-fed NYT story, one year is also the timeframe U.S. officials are now claiming Iran has before it achieves nuclear breakout capacity. The idea of this two-step media offensive, presumably, is to put pressure on Israel not to do anything “rash” before the new round of peace talks plays out, especially with news set to break tomorrow that the Bushehr reactor is ready to go. That’s consistent with the White House’s thinking all along: They’ve always believed that settling the Palestinian issue first will make it easier to deal with Iranian nukes by denying the mullahs an opportunity to exploit the great Muslim grievance. If a peace deal is struck, then theoretically the goodwill it’ll generate towards Israel and America among Sunni nations will neutralize the Muslim solidarity that Iran wants to exploit when the confrontation over its nuke program finally comes. I’m not sure how that’ll work in practice, though, since Hamas will play no role in the peace negotiations and has no interest in ceding Gaza to its enemies in the Palestinian Authority in the event that a peace deal is hashed out. On the contrary, with Iran’s full support, they’ll inevitably accuse Abbas of having sold out the Palestinian nation in order to inflame the same sense of Muslim grievance and solidarity that the peace talks are meant to mute. In fact, if O shocks the world and the talks start making serious progress, I assume Iran and Hamas (and Hezbollah, of course) will simply precipitate some sort of crisis in order to derail them. Which is to say, how can you expect any deal to hold as long as Tehran and its proxies still have fangs?
Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy:
If you think today’s announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to resume “direct talks” is a significant breakthrough, you haven’t been paying attention for the past two decades (at least). I wish I could be more optimistic about this latest development, but I see little evidence that a meaningful deal is in the offing.
Why do I say this? Three reasons.
1. There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguous state in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza), including a capital in East Jerusalem and some sort of political formula (i.e., fig-leaf) on the refugee issue. By the way, this outcome supposedly what the Clinton and Bush adminstrations favored, and what Obama supposedly supports as well.
2. There is no sign that Israel’s government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian “state” consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that this is what he means by a “two-state solution,” and he has repeatedly declared that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and maybe a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley. There are now roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition wouldn’t let him make any meaningful concessions. And while the talks drag on, the illegal settlements will continue to expand.
3. There is no sign that the U.S. government is willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. We’re clearly willing to twist Mahmoud Abbas’ arm to the breaking point (which is why he’s agreed to talks, even as Israel continues to nibble away at the territory of the future Palestinian state), but Obama and his Middle East team have long since abandoned any pretense of bringing even modest pressure to bear on Netanyahu. Absent that, why should anyone expect Bibi to change his position?
So don’t fall for the hype that this announcement constitutes some sort of meaningful advance in the “peace process.” George Mitchell and his team probably believe they are getting somewhere, but they are either deluding themselves, trying to fool us, or trying to hoodwink other Arab states into believing that Obama meant what he said in Cairo. At this point, I rather doubt that anyone is buying, and the only thing that will convince onlookers that U.S. policy has changed will be tangible results. Another round of inconclusive “talks” will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver.
UPDATE: Daniel Drezner and Heather Hurlburt at Bloggingheads
UPDATE #2: Hussein Ibish and Eli Lake at Bloggingheads
Max Fisher at The Atlantic
UPDATE #3: Daniel Levy at The Huffington Post