The Israeli-Palestinian Talks Just Might Succeed

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September 26, 2010

Someday, whatever the outcome of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, we’re all going to marvel about the amazing cynicism which greeted them. Jews, Arabs, DC pundits and grassroots activists across the spectrum all actually agreed on something: that these talks were doomed before they ever started.

The obstacles are obvious: a general lack of faith in the process, the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the ongoing shelling of Israel from Gaza—and that’s before we even consider how difficult it is to come to an agreement on the thorny final status issues.

As a result, these talks weren’t received with mere skepticism, but outright fatalism, and it was certainly warranted. In a few days, the talks may well come to a quick end if Israel resumes its settlement activity full force, as it is expected to, and the Palestinians walk out of the talks in response, as they have threatened to.

But is there reason to believe these talks might, in fact succeed? One observer, Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, offered “10 Reasons to be Hopeful about New Peace Talks.” Most of those reasons were focused on Israel and the Palestinians.

I disagree. I suggest that the best reason to hope these negotiations can succeed is, surprisingly, the United States.

Friedman left this to her reason #10, where she says “There are hints that [Obama] is prepared to invest the political capital necessary to keep these talks on track and on-target and to engage with the kind of serious leadership necessary to prevent actions by either party that threaten the viability of the negotiations themselves.”

I believe there is more here than just dedication. It is starting to look like the Obama Administration may finally have devoted some strategic thinking to these proceedings. The proof will be in whether, either through convincing the Israelis, Palestinians, or both to modify their current stances, Obama can sustain the talks past the expiration date of the settlement moratorium.

The presence of a broader strategy is indicated most strongly by the fact that the US has decided to pursue a re-ignition of talks between Israel and Syria at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian talks are just getting started.

The Syrian Angle

Attempting to involve the Syrians is an indication that the US is focused on bringing home a comprehensive peace deal that opens up relations between Israel and all the Arab states of the region. Even more importantly, it means that the US is thinking about the next step if talks between the West Bank’s Mahmoud Abbas and Israel prove successful: what to do about Hamas and Gaza.

Hamas is a vexing problem. On the one hand, there cannot be a peace deal without, at minimum, Hamas’ acquiescence. They represent too big a slice of the Palestinian population not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank as well. On the other hand, involving them in direct peace talks with Israel and the Palestinian National Authority is likely to be futile.

While Hamas has recently said it would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, it is unclear if this means they would also accept a shared Jerusalem and a resolution of the refugee issue in a way that does not include massive Palestinian return to Israel.

Hamas has not altered its stance on a permanent end of conflict with Israel (which is a very different thing from a long-term truce, which they have repeatedly offered). Unlike Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas gains nothing from talks just to show the world that they are talking.

However, if Abbas, as the representative of the Palestinian National Authority, and Israel could make real progress towards a deal, let alone if one is actually reached, and if Syria joined countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan in pressing Hamas to accept it and reunify Gaza with the West Bank, Hamas would have a very hard time resisting.

Syria is key because it is the one Arab country supporting Hamas. The Hamas international leadership has safe haven in Syria, and Syria is the one Arab state which gives Hamas its political support. This support is intimately connected to the fact that, while Jordan and Egypt have made their peace, however cold, with Israel, Syria is still in a perpetual state of tension with the Jewish state.

Syria’s conflict with Israel is, at this point, all about Syria’s determination to regain the Golan Heights. If that issue can be resolved, the chain connecting Hamas, Syria and Iran will be interrupted and Syria will have a stake in convincing Hamas to reunite with Fatah and find some way to accommodate itself to a peace deal with Israel.

The Obama Administration has recognized this, and, lacking the will to pursue any other options to bring Hamas into the fold, is pursuing an Israel-Syrian deal. They need to do this in order to ensure that a peace deal is truly regional, but they wouldn’t necessarily need to do it now; the timing indicates they understand the connection to finding a truly workable deal between Israel and the Palestinians which includes Gaza.

American Determination

A second positive sign, as Friedman pointed out, is the timing of the Obama administration’s peace efforts. The fact that Obama has pressed forward with these talks despite the looming mid-term elections is a promising sign.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu pressed hard for a reduction in the length of time a settlement building moratorium would last. It is not a coincidence that he wanted the freeze to end in late September rather than November. He wanted it to end before the mid-term elections, assuming that Obama, facing significant congressional losses in his first mid-term, would not want to press for a continuation of the moratorium.

But Obama has continued to push for an extension of the settlement “freeze” (which, it should be said, has really not been very frozen at all), albeit a little more gently than he did a year ago. He has also pushed both Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table, and made it clear that he expects this to be more than window dressing.

Hillary Clinton also continues to have a personal stake in Middle East peace. As Secretary of State, she has been far more visible on the Middle East than any other issue, and failure here is not going to enhance her standing in the public eye. Her political future, as well as her aspirations for emerging from her husband’s shadow, would be greatly enhanced by success in the peace talks and badly harmed by failure, even if everyone expects it.

In short, this Administration, unlike those before it, really does treat Israeli-Palestinian peace as a key American strategic interest

Obama’s gambles

Obama’s pressure on Mahmoud Abbas, which was repeatedly said to have undermined the Palestinian leader, actually seems to have done no such thing. In part, this is because Abbas’ standing was already weak, and Obama seems to have correctly gauged that, because of that weakened position, American pressure would not make things any worse.

He’s also betting that a way can be found to avoid the talks being scuttled by the end of the settlement freeze. He has rightly sensed that Netanyahu’s wailing that his government would fall if he extends the freeze is untrue. Even if enough right-wingers bolted the government in response, Kadima could shore up the coalition. At this point, he seems to have convinced Mahmoud Abbas to stay at the table in the event of the resumption of Israeli construction, which may indicate that he has made some arrangement with Bibi to save face for both sides.

More than anything else, Obama is betting that he can sustain these talks through the mid-term elections. If he can do that, he will have much more freedom to exert pressure toward a final agreement.


In Israel and Palestine, there is never a time when conditions are really ripe for peace. Events of the past decade – the second intifada, the massive settlement expansion, Hamas’ rise to power, the siege and massive bombardment of Gaza, among others – have made peace negotiations even harder.

Some obstacles are illusory. Israeli politics are an odd thing, and Netanyahu, despite all his right wing rhetoric, is probably no less able or inclined to make peace than any of his predecessors. Let’s recall that even Netanyahu’s agreement to a limited settlement moratorium is a good sight more than anything Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, or Shimon Peres ever did.

On the other hand, the Fatah-Hamas split and the seemingly entrenched Israeli opposition to the division of Jerusalem are serious problems. The biggest issues, though, are probably the dual problems of Palestinian public despair and Israeli public apathy about making a deal.

Despite the much greater inclination of the Obama Administration to resolve this issue in a durable way, the prospects of the United States continuing to apply the needed pressure on both sides to come to that resolution remain dim.

There is some hope. We live in an era where the majority of Israelis and Palestinians continue to support and desire a two-state solution, a political reality that did not exist twenty years ago. We have a firm offer from the Arab League for normalization of ties with Israel, something not generally contemplated even a decade ago.

Most of all, we have a moment where there is a general realization that the chances for a two-state solution are slipping away.

These are all conditions that create the possibility for success.

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