Are Attempts To Revive Peace Talks Futile But Necessary?

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have much in common.  Both are pure of heart, noble of purpose and free of blame. Each man wants nothing more than peace between Israelis and Palestinians and would have it were it not for the other one's intransigence.

"The Palestinians have no interest in entering peace talks.  I'm ready to travel now to Ramallah to start peace talks with Abu Mazen (Abbas) without preconditions," Netanyahu has said.

No way, says Abbas. "We'll continue the dialog and we'll continue the talks because we consider this to be the only way, but if they fail, this will happen through Israel's fault," he said. "If Palestinian-Israeli negotiations end in a fiasco, the blame for this will be Israel's alone." 

The Obama Administration and the International Quartet for the Mideast agree with Israel that talks should be unconditional, but they also believe Netanyahu is deliberately erecting roadblocks with frequent announcements of new settlement construction.

Abbas not only demands a total construction halt, even in parts of Jerusalem he knows Israel will never leave, but he also wants Netanyahu to agree on the 1967 lines as a reference point for future borders and in recent days added a demand for the release of a number of high-profile Palestinian prisoners.

The two sides made another attempt last week to revive negotiations under Jordanian sponsorship in Amman, but Abbas declared it a failure since Israel did not meet his requirements.  He said he plans to consult with PLO leaders, probably this week, on whether to return to the Amman exploratory talks, as urged by the United States and Jordan, or scuttle them as he has prior efforts.

These talks were to focus on borders and security.  News reports say Israel proposed that the line between the two states essentially follow the route of the security barrier Israel has build inside the West Bank and not hug the 1967 lines as Palestinians have demanded.

Israel's goal is to retain the major settlement blocks and most of the Israeli population of the West Bank.  While details have not emerged, this is believed to include about 10 percent of the West Bank and several hundred thousand Israeli settlers.  Although Palestinians have accepted the concept of land swaps and minor border adjustments, albeit on a far more limited scale, they "refused even to discuss" the Israeli offer, Netanyahu told his Cabinet Sunday. They did not even attempt to make a serious counter offer.

Nothing new there. Arafat rejected offers by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton in 2000-1, choosing to launch a deadly intifada rather than make a counter offer, and Abbas rejected a far-reaching proposal by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, something he now says he's ready to discuss.

Meanwhile, Abbas is following his separate strategy bypass direct negotiations by seeking U.N. membership, and there are reports Palestinians may launch a nonviolent third intifada because they see no chance of reaching an agreement with the Netanyahu government.

The Obama administration intends to oppose the U.N. strategy again, as it did successfully last year, and chances of Palestinian success this year don't look any better, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said this week.

The latest effort to bring the two sides together was initiated by King Abdullah II of Jordan because he feels "a changing region doesn't preclude a settlement, it demands one."  He believes both sides are interested in moving ahead in light of developments in Egypt.  He said he was a notch below "cautiously optimistic" since so far the parties had taken only "baby steps."

"Waiting is the worst mistake the Israelis can make," he said in Washington two weeks ago. 

In private meetings with Members of Congress the king refused to discuss details of the Israeli-Palestinian sessions, but he said it is important just to keep them talking, according to a source familiar with the conversation. 

"We in the international community cannot afford a lull in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations" in light of turmoil in the region, the king told the lawmakers. "A changing region doesn't preclude a settlement, it demands one….That's why it is so important to get them back to negotiations.

We're trying to get them to look at solutions and problem solving, not at the deadlines."

Dennis Ross, the Obama administration's former top Mideast envoy, said, "Abbas is convinced that this Israeli government cannot make a peace deal — or at least one he can live with — so he imposes conditions on negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees these conditions as harsh and unprecedented, and doesn't want to pay a steep political price just to enter talks."

The king said U.S. support is "pivotal" if the Quartet target date for an agreement by the end of 2012 is to be met, but he also understands that in this election year the Obama administration prefers to sit this one out.  In their Oval Office meeting the best he could get from the President was a promise to encourage both sides to take the talks seriously.

The President knows Netanyahu is no more interested in cutting a deal than Abbas is, and that Republicans want to make Israel a wedge issue in this election, accusing the Obama of being hostile to Israel.  He also knows that at the least sign of pressure Netanyahu will run crying to his Republican friends that he's being treated unfairly by this administration.

The Jordanian exploratory talks may be a necessary act of futility.  They may be going nowhere because neither side wants them to, but to admit that would open a vacuum that more radical elements would rush to fill.

It is important to keep talking, Ross said, "but there should also be no illusions about the prospects of any breakthrough any time soon."

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.