Proximity talks have their uses

Later this week, the Arab League will decide whether to recommend that the PLO move from proximity to direct talks in its negotiations with the Netanyahu government. The American-led Quartet and the moderate Arab states are reportedly pressuring President Mahmoud Abbas to request precisely such a recommendation. This, then, is a good opportunity to reflect on the advantages of US-brokered proximity talks as opposed to direct talks in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

The initial inclination of most Israelis is to prefer direct talks: the latest TAU/IDI poll shows 62 percent favoring direct talks with the PLO and only 14 percent favoring proximity talks. But this is not necessarily a comprehensive approach to contacts with our neighbors. After all, less than half of all Israelis want to talk at all with Hamas, although it’s reasonable to assume that if PM Binyamin Netanyahu were to advocate negotiating with Hamas most of the public would back him. (Then again Hamas, like Iran and Hizballah, refuses to talk to Israel, so this is at best an academic exercise.) Moreover, just two years ago the Olmert government engaged in productive Turkish-facilitated proximity talks with Syria that met with the approval of Israelis.

In the current context, Netanyahu has consistently invited the PLO to direct negotiations and has been supported in this appeal by Washington. Abbas, confronted with the unprecedented Israeli gesture of a settlement freeze and strong American support for Israeli concessions in sensitive issue areas like Jerusalem, has relented regarding proximity talks but has refused until now to enter into direct talks.

Ordinarily, one would have expected a Palestinian leader to embrace direct talks enthusiastically in order to unmask the intransigence of a right-wing Israeli government and either oblige it to reconstitute itself along more moderate lines or maneuver it into a serious confrontation with Washington. There are several likely explanations for Palestinian reluctance thus far.

The most obvious reason is a total lack of Palestinian faith in Netanyahu’s good intentions, based on the Israeli prime minister’s record and his insistence on maintaining a coalition that is essentially incompatible with the kind of concessions required to make progress toward agreement. Thus the PLO understandably hesitates to engage in any negotiations at all with the current Israeli government. Yet there may be additional, more intriguing explanations for Abbas’ reluctance that seemingly justify his preference until now for indirect talks.

One is Abbas’ political weakness within his Fateh movement. He is seen as a lame-duck leader and there is strong sentiment among his potential successors and others, opposing any concessions to Israel. A second is the veto power that Hamas in Gaza seemingly can exercise over any real negotiating progress.

Yet a third explanation is Abbas’ own hard-line positions on core issues like refugees and the Jerusalem holy basin. We got a sense of Abbas’ red lines in his rejection of Olmert’s far-reaching proposals in late 2008; why should he now position himself possibly to be seen yet again rejecting reasonable Israeli proposals?

A fourth reason could be current progress in the Palestinian state-building project, which is essentially an exercise in unilateralism. The anticipated political endgame of this dynamic, a year from now, requires international recognition of a Palestinian state and could conceivably even be compromised by the existence of productive direct negotiations. Indirect negotiations, on the other hand, are adequate for coordinating the kind of Israeli unilateral gestures, such as relaxing security demands and withdrawing from additional territory, that reinforce the state-building process.

Given the positive prospects of the state-building project, in view of the seeming inability of both Abbas and Netanyahu to make the compromises required for genuine progress in direct negotiations and considering the Obama administration’s mismanagement of the entire process for the past 18 months, one could argue that the proximity talks have proven convenient for all concerned. They allow all three parties to pretend there is a peace process without confronting their own intransigence and mistakes.

The coming months could prove fateful for the negotiations, whether indirect or direct. Netanyahu is under heavy pressure from his constituency to relax the settlement freeze two months from now, thereby further constraining Abbas’ room for maneuver. US mid-term election considerations could hamper American management of the talks until November, while the outcome of that election could constitute a constraint after November. Further afield, events in Iraq and the health of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt could affect the decision-making of Abbas, Netanyahu and Obama alike.

We may yet miss these proximity talks.