Direct Talks: A Path Forward or A Trap?

Aaron Miller, long-time State Department official, warns President Obama against pushing so hard for direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Lara Friedman, of Americans for Peace Now, explores the tangled web that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will

PA President Mahmoud Abbas

need to walk now that even the Arab League has endorsed direct talks.

The sum of both articles, though, leaves one wondering why Barack Obama is pushing so hard for direct talks.

It’s clear enough why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants direct talks. Israel has done nothing to advance the proximity talks and faced no consequences for it. In direct talks, that will be even truer; holding the talks will satisfy much of the world, and Israel will be able to prolong them indefinitely.

But what exactly does Obama expect to come from direct talks at this stage? Netanyahu is shouting to all that will listen that he can’t even extend the joke of a settlement moratorium or his government will fall (it won’t). So how can we believe he can possibly make the concessions necessary for peace?

That aside, let’s say Abbas and Netanyahu do come to an agreement that satisfies both sides. What happens with Gaza and Hamas? Part of any agreement that the Palestinians can agree to is the affirmation of the principle that the West Bank and Gaza are a single territorial unit.

If such an agreement, then, is not possible, what’s the big rush for direct talks?

It does seem that this is another symptom of the tragic lack of strategy that has dogged Obama’s Mideast efforts from day one. The President has kept this issue on the front burner, and I remain convinced of his good intentions.

But we all know what is said about the road to hell.

Ten years ago, Bill Clinton pushed Israelis and Palestinians to a summit when neither side was ready for an agreement. It seems Obama has not learned this lesson from history.

The fact of the matter is that neither side is ready, and the issue is not one of “confidence-building measures.” The

The lasting image of Camp David II

current Israeli government might, given the right circumstances, agree to remove some settlements, but it is inconceivable that this government would agree to remove enough settlements to allow for a viable Palestinian state. And the notion of them compromising on Jerusalem is simply absurd.

Even if it were possible that Netanyahu would agree to such things, the current composition of the government makes it impossible, and there is insufficient political will in Israel right now to make the changes that would be required. It’s not inconceivable that even a Bibi-led government could make the compromises necessary, but that government won’t be this one, and changing the political winds in Israel will take some time.

And on the Palestinian side, the PA-Hamas split is showing no signs of healing, making it impossible for a true end of conflict agreement.

There are political reasons why it makes sense for Obama to be pushing direct talks right now, but they’re not very impressive ones. They’re domestic concerns, supporting Israel’s position, and part of his election year outreach to the Jewish and Christian groups that are seeking to attack Democrats based on Obama’s Mideast record. We’ll leave aside for now the point that Obama has done much more than his predecessor to increase Israel’s military supremacy in the region.

But in terms of promoting Middle East peace, this is a dumb move unless Obama is willing to back it up. Direct talks are necessary if the US is to really influence an outcome agreement. But if Obama is not willing to pressure both sides, not only the Palestinians, talks will end in disaster and Obama will not only find himself in a new Mideast quagmire, but the failure will give his political opponents fresh ammunition and lots of it.

Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now

Friedman does an excellent job of listing the very real concerns Abbas must have at the prospect of talks, and she’s quite right in saying that the “…success or failure [of direct talks] will depend in large part on (Obama’s) readiness to live up to his assurances and not permit Prime Minister Netanyahu to transform the talks into a diplomatic charade and a political exercise in futility.”

But there is a real limit to how much Abbas can do to ensure that Obama holds up his end. And, indeed, even more is needed—if talks are to be productive, let alone ultimately successful, Obama will have to be willing to push an American vision of two states that includes contiguous Palestinian territory at least roughly equivalent to the whole of the West Bank and a truly shared Jerusalem.

Abbas can go some distance toward creating political pressure for Obama to do that, but a lot of the responsibility will be on American activists to create the bulk of it. And there’s way to do it in November.

The radical right wing “Emergency Committee for Israel” (ECI) is dedicating all its resources to defeating Democrat Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania’s election for Arlen Specter’s Senate seat. Those who want to see peace in the Middle East would do well to rally around Sestak. If he wins the race, and if exit polls show that he kept the Jewish and pro-Israel votes, this will send a powerful message in Washington, probably a lot more powerful than it might seem at first blush. There’s probably no more powerful way to create the political atmosphere for Obama to act than for Sestak to win the pro-Israel vote in that race, even if he loses overall.

In any case, if Obama is going to act boldly, the pro-peace gloves have to come off. It’s another opportunity to bemoan the inability of the left and center-left to work together. J Street needs to adopt some of the more uncompromising criticism that groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) are leveling against the radical right-wing tilt Israel has taken, while JVP and like-minded groups need to be able to channel that clarity through groups like J Street into more direct political effect. That these groups cannot find a way to do that continues to limit their effectiveness, especially as compared to their pro-status quo or radical right counterparts.

Still, this is where the hope lies. The domestic political winds have already shifted a bit, and ECI’s very formation is a reaction to that fact. But more is needed, and soon, because it doesn’t seem as if Obama has a plan. Lacking that, the political winds will have to blow harder, or the push for direct talks will end in just as disastrous a way as Camp David II did.

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One Response to “Direct Talks: A Path Forward or A Trap?”

  1. walid Says:

    it is a trap for all

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