Why has Washington decided to go it alone without Russia and the other members of the Middle East Quartet? Does this improve the chances for success of the peace talks?
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (center) with Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli prisons during celebrations in the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 14. Photo: Reuters
Three years after the failure of the last Palestinian-Israeli talks, the United States has initiated and organized resumption of the negotiating process. The inability of international representatives within the Quartet (the European Union, Russia, the U.S. and the UN) to break the negotiation deadlock has enabled Washington to play the key role in the new round of talks.
The U.S. has tried to assume a monopoly role in the Middle East settlement virtually from the start of the conflict. Washington took the part of being the sole peace-broker, trying to convince the world that the U.S. alone could get the Arabs and the Israelis to the negotiating table and persuade them to make concessions. Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” was a classic example.
Yet, the process was most successful when the leaders of the conflicting countries negotiated without intermediaries, as they did in 1978 and again in 1992-1993. At subsequent stages, however, Washington brokered and sealed the peace accords of Camp David and Oslo.
It is obvious why the U.S. is striving to bring about a breakthrough in the talks at this particular time. Against the background of setbacks in its Middle East policy and its waning influence, a breakthrough in achieving a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is perhaps the only way to burnish Washington’s image in the Middle East.
Most importantly for the U.S., a triumph could be achieved without resorting to military presence and without direct interference in the internal affairs of the parties. That is why, during his second term in office, President Barack Obama decided to try to “unfreeze” the Palestinian-Israeli talks and bring about a peace agreement.
The new Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been charged with pushing this process forward. As a result of Kerry’s successful mediation mission in July, the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed to conduct peace negotiations for at least nine months in order to resolve all the issues connected with the so-called final status of the occupied territories.
Among the daunting tasks to be resolved at the negotiating table are creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders “taking due account of the changed demographic conditions,” the fate of the Jewish settlements on the occupied territories and the future status of Jerusalem.
The U.S. has declared it would take part as “coordinator.” Even so, the talks will be direct, bilateral and confidential.
According to the U.S. State Department, after nine months, there should be a final meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to sign an agreement.
If that happens, serious formalities will have to be observed and the members of the Quartet might be invited to attend the gala event (most probably, at the U.S. President’s residence). That is still a long way off, however.
There are two main reasons why the international community, most notably Russia, has been excluded from the process of organizing and coordinating the talks.
First, with the start of the Arab Spring, the Middle East became an arena of friction and controversy among the main global players, above all the U.S. and Europe, on one side, and Russia, sometimes together with China, on the other.
Because of differences between Russia and the West over some fundamental issues pertaining to Iran and Syria, and over the assessment of the situation following the Arab Spring, the U.S. is seeking to diminish Russia’s role in the region, undermine its image and weaken its influence in the countries with which Moscow has traditionally been allied.
Second, the reluctance to be in linked with the Quartet in general, and with Russia in particular, stems from the fact that the U.S. has levers for influencing both Israel and Palestine (though they are not always effective). The U.S. can threaten Israel with international isolation and the Palestinians with cutting off financial aid if this round of talks fails as well.
Yet, these two “sticks” are unlikely to be effective. A referendum in Israel (and any peace agreements with Palestine must be put to a referendum in Israel) might undo any progress made towards moving away from the 1967 borders. Moreover, the Palestinian public is unlikely to be satisfied with the Israeli concessions.
Nor should one dismiss the significance of the inevitable ire of the Arab states. Although the Arab League has welcomed the fact of the negotiations, the Arab world is likely to accuse the Palestinian authorities, above all Mahmoud Abbas, of betraying the Palestinian people’s struggle against the Zionists.
So it is hard to tell how successful the new round of talks will be. It depends, first and foremost, on the political will and determination of the two sides to the conflict. Nothing the U.S., Europe or Russia can do would make the parties sign a peace agreement and implement it in practice.
What are the chances of these talks succeeding?
As things stand today, there are some doubts as to whether the parties are really sufficiently interested in peace as to make symmetrical and agreed concessions and then consistently honor the agreements achieved.
As a “good will gesture,” Israel decided to release about a hundred imprisoned Palestinians (76 are about to be released), yet it still refused to stop building Jewish settlements, arguing that the issue should be resolved during the negotiations.
Israel’s main demand, as before, is Arab recognition of the state of Israel. The Palestinian leadership would like Prime Minister Netanyahu to present a map with the future borders of the Palestinian state before the negotiations start. It stresses that the Palestinians seek to have a state within the 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Hamas, for its part, is calling on Fatah and the Palestinians to cancel the talks with the occupiers, which they believe are only detrimental to national unity.
At the same time, Israel and the Palestinian authorities, in spite of serious grudges against each other, cannot renounce the talks altogether, not only because of pressure from the U.S. but also because of the complex and unpredictable situation in the Middle East.
Yet, a solution to the most sensitive issues, even with all the guarantees of security for the Jewish state the U.S. is generously pledging, calls for nationwide consensus.
It is not certain that an Israeli referendum would approve the government’s concessions on these issues. The Palestinian Administration is also afraid of the consequences if it proclaims an independent state.
The Palestinian Administration is afraid to forfeit the image of being the aggrieved party, as well as financial injections into Palestine’s economy, once the conflict is dropped from the main international agenda. Moreover, the internal political situation on the Palestinian side gives little cause for starry-eyed hopes.