The resumption in Washington of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is good news. But whether these talks will lead to an agreement, let alone within one year as US President Barack Obama hopes, is another matter.
When Obama, two days into his presidency, appointed former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, many hoped that within two years his efforts would lead to an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – and to a comprehensive peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.
Whether these exaggerated hopes should be traced to Obama’s inexperience or to hubris – or both – is a moot point: What is clear is that, after 18 months and numerous visits to the region, Mitchell was able to achieve only an agreement in principle by Israel and the Palestinians to start talking to each other.
The problem is that they have been talking to each other now for 17 years, under different Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and under two US presidents. To bring them to the negotiating table again is not a breakthrough, but rather an attempt at damage control. And, while Mitchell’s successful track record in achieving reconciliation in Northern Ireland seemed like an excellent credential for his current job, it may have hindered him in the Middle East.
The conflict in Northern Ireland was always territorial: not even the most radical Irish republican group ever denied the legitimacy of the United Kingdom – only its rule over the six northern provinces of what they considered United Ireland. The crux of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, by contrast, only partly concerns Israel’s borders. The Palestinians contest not just the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank; since the United Nations partition plan of 1947 – which called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab – Palestinians refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and most Israelis are not convinced they have totally abandoned that stance.
Being tone-deaf to these fundamental issues, Mitchell started on the wrong foot by initially acceding, with Obama’s encouragement, to the Palestinians’ demand for a freeze on further construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank prior to the start of talks. A stop to settlement activities in Palestinian territories is a reasonable demand, and Palestinians could naturally insist on it in the negotiations. But making a settlement freeze a precondition for negotiations was unacceptable to the Israeli government, which maintained that no preconditions for negotiations should be set.
More than a year was wasted on this, causing, among other things, tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Obama administration. With a lack of grace, Netanyahu finally agreed to a temporary freeze – due to expire at the end of September – and eventually the Palestinians, this time under United States pressure, relented to open negotiations without an explicit Israeli assurance that the freeze would be continued.
Not only was precious time wasted, but further damage was done. Even Israelis who do not agree with Netanyahu’s hardline positions didn’t like to see their prime minister treated by the US as if he were the leader of Upper Volta. Indeed, he did, after all, announce last year that contrary to his Likud Party’s previous position, he was now willing to accept a two-state solution – a position that is still anathema to many Likud members, as well to at least three of the smaller parties in his government coalition.
Now that the talks are to begin, will they achieve anything substantial, or will the summit in Washington merely be another photo opportunity, like President George W. Bush’s Annapolis summit in 2007? Only an unreconstructed optimist would give the talks more than a 50 percent chance of succeeding.
The reasons are more immediate than the intractable character of Middle East peacemaking. Even if Netanyahu is willing to bow to realism, some of his coalition partners might leave his government.
On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority lost control in 2006 of the Gaza Strip – now ruled by an illegitimate Hamas-led government – and thus cannot speak anymore for all Palestinians. With more than 600 Palestinians killed in Gaza since Hamas’s violent putsch, making peace among the Palestinians may be as difficult as making peace between them and Israel.
Moreover, before Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down two years ago, the previous Israeli government, under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, negotiated for two years with the Palestinian Authority. This was the most moderate Israeli government conceivable, and the same can be said about the Fatah movement controlling the Palestinian Authority. Yet, after dozens of meetings, public and private, the two sides failed to reach agreement.
Even the most moderate leaders on both sides could not agree on the core issues of the conflict: borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and the fate of 1947-1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Both sides had an immediate stake in reaching an agreement: for Olmert, an agreement might have rescued his position as prime minister, and it would have been a trump card for Abbas in Fatah’s de facto civil war with Hamas.
The failure to reach agreement under such apparently auspicious conditions does not bode well for the coming talks. But Netanyahu has said that once negotiations start, “we will surprise everyone,” and the Palestinians have gone further than ever before in building the institutions needed for national independence. Even a lapsed optimist can see that this time the chances for reconciliation just might be better after all.
Shlomo Avineri, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).