What role for US in new Israel-Palestinian peace talks?

The new Israel-Palestinian peace talks are just that, US officials insist – bilateral talks between the two parties. But the US will have an important role in prodding both sides toward compromise.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Israel's Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni (r.) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Tuesday at the State Department in Washington.

As relaunched Israeli-Palestinian peace talks shift from Washington back to the region, a crucial factor will be the degree of US participation – how much American arm-twisting, and by whom – in what are to be bilateral negotiations between the two parties.

With Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat at his side, Secretary of State John Kerry announced at the State Department Tuesday that all of the so-called final-status issues that stand in the way of settlement of the decades-old Mideast conflict will be on the table when talks resume in either Israel or the Palestinian territories in two weeks.

But one looming issue will be how a process that was practically willed into new life by a determined Mr. Kerry – and one which the parties appear to have agreed to in part as a means of maintaining good relations with the US – can be sustained as the pressure to deliver shifts to regional leaders.

It has been something of a mantra for years that no one can want a resolution of the conflict more than the parties themselves, and that truism is about to be put to the test. But no one doubts that the US will have to play a sustained role in the negotiations – ultimately with the participation of President Obama – if the talks are to succeed.

The trick will be for the US to get two parties that would almost certainly not be able to strike a deal on their own to see the talks not as a favor to the US but in the same light Kerry did Tuesday – as perhaps the last chance for “a lasting peace” that will pay “dividends” to everybody.

“Kerry has wanted these talks more than the parties do, he’s compelled them to it,” says Robert Danin, a longtime US diplomat in Middle East issues now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

But going forward “the US role will be necessary but not sufficient,” he adds. “At some point the parties are going to have to change their calculations … and see concessions as painful steps leading to a greater good.”

The initial talks that get underway in two weeks will include the US as a “facilitator,” senior State Department officials said Tuesday, but will essentially be carried out between the two parties. The special Mideast envoy named by Kerry to shepherd the talks, former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, will be present at the opening talks, according to a senior State Department official, although it is yet to be decided exactly how involved he will be.

Kerry said he wants to see resolution of all issues resulting in a final settlement within nine months, and that both parties have agreed to stick with the negotiations at least that long. 

“It’s fair to say [Mr. Indyk] will be in some meetings and not in other meetings,” says the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive issues. Reluctant to elaborate on the US role, the official added that “it is fair to say the US will be on hand throughout the negotiations.”

That role will remain intense in the two weeks before talks get underway, the official suggested, noting that the “sequence” of core issues to be tackled “is something we’ll be working with the parties on.”

White House officials who have been involved in the effort to restart talks underscore the point that, as much as the US would like to see the dream realized of a Palestinian state coexisting with a secure Israel, the details of achieving that will have to be worked out by the two parties.

“The bottom line is that these are direct bilateral talks between the two parties,” says a senior White House official who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “Facilitator means facilitator,” the official adds, the US role will be to “be helpful in any way we can” but not to do the negotiating for the parties.

US officials have also challenged the idea that the US, and Kerry in particular, have wanted these talks more than the parties do. The White House official underscored in particular Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “difficult” decision to authorize the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody as a gesture to get the talks going.

It was “a sign of the seriousness of Prime Minster Netanyahu that he was willing to take that step,” the official says. It demonstrated Netanyahu’s “commitment to doing difficult things to get the process started,” he adds.

US officials also suggested the Palestinians, in committing to nine months of talks, have agreed to keep their legal differences with Israel off of the United Nations General Assembly agenda in September and to put off pursuing any legal action against Israel over its occupation of Palestinian territories.

Such action was a looming “train wreck” that might have won the Palestinians some points in some international venues, but which US officials say would have doomed any chance of reaching a final settlement with Israel.

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