The frustrating realities of the Middle East peace process
What’s the first item on the agenda for the long-awaited, face-to-face peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians that begin Thursday at the State Department? It’s just getting the parties to agree to a second meeting in several weeks.
And even achieving that modest goal is not a given: First, the two sides have to find their way past what one negotiator calls the “barrier reef” of Sept. 26. That’s the expiration date of Israel’s moratorium on building new settlements. If that issue can’t be resolved quickly, then this latest peace process is likely to collapse soon after it starts.
The Obama administration, which came to office with such brash optimism about achieving a breakthrough on the Palestinian problem, is reckoning this week with the frustrating realities that have obstructed a settlement for more than 40 years: Every little issue is linked to a bigger issue; agreement on the parts of a deal is impossible unless you can see the shape of the whole package.
The settlements freeze is a case in point: The administration demanded the moratorium early last year as a way to boost Arab confidence. But it has become a proxy for the larger question of what borders a future Palestinian state will have.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will probably agree to extend the moratorium past the Sept. 26 deadline only under a formula that allows Israel to keep building in the big settlement blocks that bound Jerusalem. Everyone (including the Palestinian negotiators) understands that these blocks, although outside the 1967 borders of Israel, will become part of the Jewish state in any final deal.
The demarcation of borders, in theory, is the easiest of the “final status” issues to resolve, so the Obama administration planned to start there.
But hold on: The borders issue, in turn, is a proxy for the still larger question of how Israel will maintain security with a Palestinian state next door. Israel might agree to return 95 percent of the pre-1967 territory if it knew it could have a military presence in the Jordan River Valley, or airspace over the West Bank, or a demilitarized Palestine, or…. Pretty soon, this starting point begins to look like a dead end.
The Obama administration’s response has been an admirable persistence. “We’re trying to launch a process that has staying power,” says a senior administration official. “You can’t get there until you get there.”
“Getting there” begins Wednesday with a kickoff dinner at the White House with leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan. The next day, the Israelis and Palestinians sit down with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—and, hopefully, agree to meet again in about two weeks somewhere in the Middle East. Then, in theory, negotiators begin working on specific sub-issues, such as water, transportation, airspace and even Internet bandwidth.
When the parties reach an impasse, the Obama administration plans to step in with “bridging proposals.” As momentum accelerates and the key sticking points become clear, Obama plans to gather negotiators at a rural location near Washington for a final push.
But first they have to get past the impasse of Sept. 26, which has become at once the alpha and the omega.
What possible reason would Netanyahu have for making concessions that would boost the political standing of Obama, a man many Israelis still regard with deep suspicion?
“Israel’s interest is in having a strong America,” says Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington. And you can’t have a strong America with a weak president. This may be Obama’s secret weapon, the fact that he needs a win so badly right now. Another American failure would be scary -- especially for Israel.
| August 31, 2010; 10:04 AM ET
Categories: Ignatius | Tags: David Ignatius
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