The resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that is projected for September 2 in Washington serves a number of useful purposes. Sadly, none of them is directly connected to the effort to "resolve all final status issues" trumpeted last Friday in statements by the Quartet and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
One advantage of these talks for Israel is that their very existence is good for Israeli-American relations. As General David Petraeus explained not too long ago, a peace process facilitates improved US-Arab relations that in turn ease the task of American forces in the Middle East. And that reduces the potential for US resentment against Israel. This explains Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s insistent calls for a serious peace process in recent months.
The talks are also good for Israeli-American relations because hopefully they set the scene for some sort of negotiated extension of a full or partial settlement freeze–a key administration demand–prior to the September 26 expiration date.
Then too, the administration needs these negotiations for its own political purposes. By pointing to this achievement, it hopes to shore up its support base as mid-term elections approach in November.
But when it comes to the substance of Israeli-Palestinian relations, these negotiations become much more problematic. Neither Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu nor PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas is ideologically inclined or politically positioned to resolve all final status issues. The two leaders are far apart on the core issues of refugees and the disposition of the Jerusalem Holy Basin; all claims to the effect that "the parameters of final status are well known" are completely misplaced when it comes to these two negotiating categories. Further, Netanyahu has deliberately surrounded himself with coalition partners who seriously constrain his freedom of diplomatic maneuver, while in Abbas’ case, both his Fateh allies and his Hamas enemies are a major problem.
These negotiations could even breed violence. On the Israeli side, we could encounter attempts by extremist settlers (remember Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in February 1994) to protest and provoke by attacking Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, on a much larger scale, Hamas is poised to launch rocket attacks from Gaza with the objective of disrupting negotiations. Moreover, as we saw in 2000, the perception of failed negotiations can even generate a new intifada in the West Bank. In this sense, the near certainty that Abbas and Netanyahu will not resolve all final status issues renders these negotiations, as projected by Washington and the Quartet, dangerous.
Where the negotiations could conceivably be useful (and safer) for all concerned is if the American sponsors steer them toward reinforcing and facilitating the one success story they can point to: the Palestinian state-building effort in the West Bank. But this means precisely not seeking to resolve all final status issues in this round and, instead, focusing on confidence-building measures and gestures that narrow the gap on borders and security. Netanyahu’s apparent positions on these issues may differ little from those of his predecessors, so there could be a better chance here for progress. This in turn would ease the political endgame of international recognition for a Palestinian state–which is projected by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for next August when, coincidentally or not, the administration and the Quartet want the new negotiations to be completed.
Abbas enters these negotiations having been forced by American and Arab pressure to abandon his demand that the 2008 talks with Olmert and the 1967 lines serve as points of departure. He clearly miscalculated his negotiating position, thereby weakening his political position at home and among his Arab neighbors. He would have been far better off abandoning preconditions and calling Netanyahu’s bluff months ago.
Finally, in view of the growing concern over Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions in Washington, Jerusalem and many Arab capitals, one can only wonder at the administration’s failure to place greater emphasis on negotiations between Israel and Damascus as well. This is the only diplomatic way of to weaken Iran’s penetration into the Levant. It’s also extremely important as the US draws down its forces from Iraq, which borders Syria.
While an Israel-Syria negotiating breakthrough is far from certain, the chances are much better than between Israel and Ramallah, and the immediate regional payoff at least as great. President Bashar al-Assad is an extremely problematic partner (for both the US and Israel) and Netanyahu is far from enthusiastic. But Washington’s silence on this issue is troublesome.