As Israeli-Palestinian talks get under way, optimists keep up drumbeat
A number of Israelis and Americans say that fear of being cast as rejectionist may keep the parties at the table.
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Middle East Editor
Ariel Zirulnick is the Monitor's Middle East editor, overseeing regional coverage both for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She is also a contributor to the international desk's terrorism and security blog.
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President Obama called Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday to commend as courageous their decision to resume peace talks that the US is striving to portray with an optimistic outlook.
Naysayers on all sides insist there is no way that this latest round of peace talks will succeed when so many others failed, and there has been a flurry of commentary explaining why these talks are predisposed to end in much the same way as the others. But the US has been aided by a slew of prominent voices in the US and Israel arguing the opposite.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saab Erekat came to Washington this week for the first of what is expected to be several rounds of talks. They agreed to meet again in two weeks, USA Today reports, and the negotiating team has set a timeline of roughly nine months to craft a solution that will create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
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The arguments for optimism are not necessarily based on altruism. As The Christian Science Monitor's Ben Lynfield wrote earlier this week, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas may have sent representatives to Washington primarily because neither wanted to risk "being cast as rejectionists." And some watching the negotiations posit that the desire to not be blamed for the talks' failure might be enough to keep both sides engaged, although the gap between their demands is daunting.
Aaron David Miller, who has worked for several US secretaries of State and is a former Middle East negotiator, makes the same argument in an commentary for Politico.
To reach this point, Kerry has combined his own relentless and willfulness (six trips to the region in four months) with something else: Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu wants to say no to America’s top diplomat and take the blame for the collapse of the process. James Baker, one of Kerry’s most successful predecessors, used this tactic effectively – threatening to leave a proverbial dead cat on Israel’s and the Arabs’ doorstep if they refused to attend the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Kerry’s effort is also aided by the fact that both Abbas and Netanyahu worry that without a process of some kind, events on the ground could easily deteriorate.
These factors proved sufficient to get them back to negotiations, but more will be required to keep them there, let alone to reach an accord.
The push toward peace, at least on the Israeli side, could also be motivated by the belief that Israel is rapidly approaching "the point of no return" – the point at which neither two viable states nor a single, predominantly Jewish state are possible, writes Rachel Bessette on Open Zion, a publication of the Daily Beast focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel's security establishment, much vaunted within Israeli society, is the unexpected source of the increasingly insistent warnings, she writes.
On July 13th, the former head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, issued a “mayday” in The Jerusalem Post urging Israel to take action and move towards a negotiated two state solution. Diskin, like others, including former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, argues that the window for a two-state solution is closing. He confronts Israeli politicians, writing that “the absence of true leadership willing to take real actions, instead of making idle statements, has me convinced more and more that this option … is becoming increasingly unrealistic and is no longer feasible.” If Israel continues on this path, he warns, it will soon pass the point of no return, the consequences of which would be incompatible with maintaining a “Jewish state.”
A day later, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert echoed these sentiments. Speaking at a book release event, Olmert criticized the present government’s approach and warned, like Diskin, that Israel is at a point where it is “likely to miss the opportunity to preserve the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Among former Israeli security officials there is virtual unanimity that Israeli policy is… flying at an unsustainable altitude.
Ms. Bessette writes that the former intel chiefs "are not giving up hope" and that it is "extremely significant that these voices are not backing down."
Emily Hauser, also a contributor to Open Zion who has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades, writes in a column titled "The Case for a Less-Guarded Optimism" that some crucial differences make this time feel different: Everything is on the table for negotiation – all the "final status issues" – and there is a deadline.
I’ve lately taken to describing my approach to Kerry’s efforts as one of guarded pessimism. I’ve been on this merry-go-round since 1993, and there’s nothing like two decades of resounding failure to make a person lose her hope—but like Kerry himself, I believe that outright skepticism is a luxury that we can’t afford. …
John Kerry means business, and though their comments were brief, it seems that Livni and Erekat also mean business. Mahmoud Abbas has supported a two-state solution since 1977; Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to make it sound like maybe he’s not as opposed as he used to be. President Obama went out of his way this morning to make it clear that he, too, means business.
Everyone involved has their reasons for being involved, and some of those reasons are petty. The ways in which the whole thing could fall apart are myriad. History gives us very little reason to hope.
But in the wake of this morning’s press conference, my pessimism is less guarded than it was. Let’s see what you can do, Mr. Secretary. Next April would be a lovely time to re-write the future.
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