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Media Call on Middle East Peace Talks with Robert M. Danin

Speakers: Jonathan D. Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs, and Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow, Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
July 30, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience in holding. We now have your speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of today's presentation, we'll open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Jonathan Tepperman. Sir, you may begin.

TEPPERMAN: Thanks very much. Hi, everyone. I'm Jonathan Tepperman. I'm the managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

So we're -- it looks like we're off to the races again. As everyone knows, last night was the kickoff of the first Middle East peace talks in three years, or at least talks about talks. And we have more coming in short order.

To help us figure out what to make of them, we're very lucky to be able to turn to Robert Danin. Robert is a CFR senior fellow and a former State Department and NSC official. More important for our purposes, he's also a grizzled veteran of the peace process. And, Rob, I mean "grizzled" in the most respectful way. I'm going to kick things off by asking you a few questions myself, and then I'm going to open up the floor to everyone who's joined us.

So, Rob, let me start with a general question. To paraphrase an expression that they use each springtime in the Middle East, how are these talks different from all other talks? You know, after all, we've been down this road many, many times before. What's -- what's so different this time?

DANIN: Well, I think what's interesting -- and, first of all, thank you, Jonathan, and thank you to everyone who's participating in the call. And -- so it's a pleasure to be with you all today, at least by telephone.

I mean, I think what's interesting that we saw today in the announcement, really, by Secretary Kerry, you know, are really a few things. I mean, first of all, in launching the talks yet again, Secretary Kerry has shifted the goal to an even more ambitious one than the one that had been set out by President Obama. You recall the goals set out by President Obama had been what in the shorthand was called a borders and security agreement. What Secretary Kerry laid out today was a full, comprehensive agreement to which he called conflict-ending, no claims, no further -- that would be conflict-ending and claim-ending. That's pretty seamless, pretty comprehensive.

So -- and in doing that, the second interesting aspect of it is that he's brought the parties back to the negotiations without any real clear or publicly acknowledged terms of reference. There may be some private understandings, at least with the Palestinians, about what the American views are of what the basis for negotiations are, but there's no mutually agreed upon, publicly acknowledged terms of reference here, which is another way of saying, you know, the Israeli -- Israel is able to claim that it's returning to negotiations without any preconditions. The Palestinian position had been that they wanted affirmation of 1967 line with mutually agreed upon borders, a position the United States had articulated in May of 2011, but not -- but as an American view, not as an Israeli one. So we still don't have that. But, nonetheless, they're returning to negotiations about everything, but what specifically, we don't know.

But, finally, you know, they're doing so with a very ambitious timeline, which is a nine-month goal to wrap up all these issues. So it sounds -- you know, they've upped the bar, and they've shortened the timeline, and it's rather ambitious.

TEPPERMAN: So let me put you on the spot and ask for a more precise take on Kerry's choices, because, you know, you, of course, have been to this rodeo before, so what do you think about this move to set a fixed deadline and say we're going to -- we're going to do everything?

DANIN: Well, on the -- it's not a deadline; it's a goal. There's a slight difference, only in that it allows the parties -- and especially the United States -- to buy more time if things are going OK, if there's something to be able to point to in nine months. So it's aspirational; it's not putting their backs up against the wall.

So that's good, because you don't want to be in a position where you've put the end of the administration as your end goal or even the congressional elections next fall. I mean, this puts you basically into May of next year, as the time at which some progress has to be demonstrated. And progress, that means something really substantial.

That makes sense. I mean, these are all artificial and random. We've chosen some in the past that were completely random that had to do with, you know, other completely exogenous factors. So that's fine. It's ambitious, but, you know, would 18 months be any more helpful than nine months? Hard to say.

But in going for a comprehensive agreement, it makes sense in one sense, and it's -- it makes it more ambitious on the other. You know, on the one hand, in going for borders and security arrangement, you -- the advantage of that approach had been that you don't -- you avoid perhaps the two hardest issues, which is Jerusalem and the refugees. The downside of that is you don't have an end of claims, and so you would have put the Israelis particularly in a position where they would have been giving up their major asset, which is territory, without being able to claim that they had resolved the conflict with the Palestinians.

This, however, by going for all claims, all issues, including refugees and Jerusalem, in essence, you've moved -- not only are you trying to resolve the conflict of 1967, which was the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, you're trying to end the 1948 war, which is the existential conflict between Jews and Palestinians over the -- over all of the territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. That's a much more ambitious goal, but it's the only one that will end the conflict and end all claims and bring everyone else in. So there are tradeoffs there and upsides and downsides to each approach.

TEPPERMAN: So let's set Kerry's strategy aside for a second. Our callers can follow up when it's their turn, if they want, and let me ask you one other general question, which is about timing, but in a different sense than the one we've been discussing so far. And here I mean the timing of the talks and the fact that both the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed now.

And my question, simply put, is: Why now? After all, Bibi has this very fractious coalition, with partners -- key partners that oppose making sacrifices for peace, and he's losing control of his own party. Two Likud cabinet members voted against the prisoner release on Sunday. And Naftali Bennett joined a protest outside the Knesset. And Bibi would much rather talk about Iran than the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Abbas is hardly in a position of strength of his own.

So how do you interpret their decision to do this now?

DANIN: I mean, the short answer is, neither side could ultimately say no to Secretary Kerry. You know, I think both sides tested him and, you know, didn't give very much for a good time. But he convinced them that he wasn't going to go away, and he convinced them that this was of such importance to him that the price of saying no to the United States, a party that both sides desperately need, despite their claims to the contrary, was just too high. And so, you know, he made it clear to them that he would not take no for an answer.

Now, it's a lot easier to accede to that when you are agreeing to a process, rather than to an agreement, and in where you sort of paper over and find all sorts of very elaborate and, you know, clever ways to paper over differences. And that's what they did. And so what -- you know, this -- getting to this point showed a lot of tactical sophistication by Secretary Kerry.

But the very things -- and this is what I've been trying to stress in my writings -- the very things that allowed them to get to this -- get back to the table, all the ambiguity, all the diplomatic kind of vagueness that, you know, allows each side to claim victory is precisely what's going to be -- can't happen for an agreement to take place. All the things that were not clear before now have to be brought into focus for there to be a real agreement. And so in many ways, as hard as it's been to get them to the table, that was the easy part, compared to what they have ahead of them, which is really putting pen to paper and getting to yes.

And so, you know -- now, more specifically, you know, there's something in it for each side right now. I mean, both sides, there's a benefit to going to talks. I mean, for Benjamin Netanyahu, you know, one -- one big motivation -- and he specified it in the letter that he released to his public -- was, you know, the growing international isolation of Israel. And the mere act of going into negotiations has gained Israel some legitimacy, has put those who want to isolate Israel internationally and in international fora and in specific international areas, like the ICC, all that's been frozen, and that gives Israel some space. And so it improves its international standing and potentially arrests a slide towards greater, you know, South Africanization, a pariah status for Israel.

The second is that many people in Israel are commenting that, you know, Prime Minister Netanyahu, he's in his third term. He doesn't really have a lot to show in terms of achievements. And so, you know, there's a lot of wishful thinking here for those who want there to be a comprehensive peace agreement. There's a lot of hope, I think, among many that Netanyahu will be -- will seize upon this as a legacy item for him and something that he will be able to achieve. I'm skeptical, but it's a reason for hope for some Israelis that, you know, it's something for him.

Conversely, you know, President Abbas ultimately has staked out -- long ago staked out an approach in which negotiations were really the only way he's going to be able to get deliverables. And he's now produced some deliverables. He's now getting 104 of the most difficult prisoners that -- to get released, released from Israel. Israel is adhering to a line that's saying they're not paying for talks. I'm not sure it looks that way to most observers. They are paying for talks, but they've also managed to structure it in a way that they're going to actually implement that agreement in a way that keeps the Palestinians in the talks.

But this strengthens Abbas, who now has something to counter the Hamas there, which had been, hey, we get Palestinian prisoners released by grabbing Gilad Shalit. Now Abbas can say, no, I also get prisoners released through cooperating with Israel. So it strengthens his hand and strengthens the cause of those who want to point to negotiations as the way to reconcile to Israel.

It also gets him out of a box with the United States and with -- you know, with even the Arab League, that essentially was pushing him into negotiations, as well. So, ultimately, he had put himself in a corner by not going to the negotiating table. It's difficult for him. He's going up against a lot of domestic criticism in going back into negotiations. But ultimately, he can't achieve anything without negotiations.

TEPPERMAN: Let me ask one more quick question, and that's about the key player that we haven't really heard from much recently, and here I'm referring to President Obama, who despite some earlier statements and then his quick drive by this morning, has not been very involved, or at least publicly involved.

What's going on there with the White House letting Kerry run this seemingly or at least publicly on his own? And put another way, what -- what do you think is in this for President Obama, who doesn't really seem to have his heart in the process?

DANIN: You know, I think he has his heart in it. I just don't think he believes that -- I think he's been burned. He doesn't see a win here, or an easy win. And he has other agenda items of greater priority to him, be it the pivot away from this part of the world on the international front, getting the United States out of two wars, and a more ambitious domestic agenda.

But that's not to say -- you know, I think people also overstate the gap, let's say. I think he -- you know, this is also not a situation in which the parties can appeal to the White House and, thereby, work around the secretary of state. The secretary of state, John Kerry, has the backing of the White House to do this. And he's -- you know, he doesn't have their active involvement. He's taken it upon himself to do this. This is -- he's now, in the shorthand, you know, become the desk officer for this. Bill Clinton had become the desk officer at one point. That's not Barack Obama.

But on the -- at the same time, there's not daylight here that one of the parties can exploit to say, you know, when the secretary of state comes and they don't like it, then, you know, go off, call the White House, and say, is that really the American position? No.

At a certain point, the president will have to get involved. But I don't think it at this point is a fatal -- that's not the thing that's going to drive this down, I think, contrary to some commentators. I mean, there's a point at which he will have to get involved in order to close, but he'll only do -- he'll get involved if he sees a greater potential for this to succeed.

And I think already, you know, Secretary Kerry, in getting the parties back to the table, has defied some of the skeptics who thought even that was a fool's errand.

TEPPERMAN: Well, I have about a thousand more questions, but I suspect I would get lynched if I kept hogging the microphone or the telephone. So let's open things up to everyone who's called in, please, Operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, please dial star, two. Again, to ask a question, dial star, one on your touch-tone phone now.

Our first question will come from Eric Shapiro of Wellington Management Company. Please go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: Yeah, also a thousand questions, but maybe go with two. First one more general. What should we be looking for over the next weeks, days, months, which suggests one way or the other that this time it is different or maybe this time it really isn't different, who cares, number one?

And, number two, is Abbas the right guy to be negotiating with? You know, Barghouti's still in jail. Presumably he's not getting released in this prisoner release. But how do you reconcile those two guys and the suggestion that Abbas really doesn't have a whole lot of power anymore? And maybe I'm wrong about that.

DANIN: Look, I mean, in the days and weeks ahead -- well, let me just answer the first point indirectly, which was, you know, I was part of the process -- I was at the Annapolis peace conference and part of the negotiations that then followed afterwards. And during that period immediately afterwards, people were -- especially in Israel and the Palestinian territories -- were credibly skeptical and disinterested, because they didn't think it was serious. And that turned out to be a very good thing, because it actually meant that the negotiators could get to work and really roll up their sleeves.

So I think the -- and what resulted was actually a lot more than people expected. They didn't get to a deal, but they got a lot done, and they produced a lot more serious convergences on a number of issues, and especially on the most forward-leaning Israeli offer in Israeli history by Ehud Olmert. We can debate whether it was -- you know, all aspects of it, but the fact is, he did offer some, you know, 94, plus or minus, percent of the territories with equal swaps, a very ambitious final-status offer on Jerusalem, with the internationalization even. They went -- he went a great deal of distance in a very short period of time against everyone's expectations.

And so I think the more that the negotiations take place in public, the less that happens. The more they take place outside of scrutiny, the more that things can actually happen. So the short answer is, I wouldn't look to very much in the days and weeks ahead, other than things going south. If there's a breakdown, you'll know it. But if things go quiet, then that's probably the best you can hope for.

QUESTION: Forgive me. How will we know there's a breakdown?

DANIN: Well, if the -- you know, I think -- look, on the one hand, I mean, Secretary Kerry was very wise to say that he will be the only authoritative spokesman here and not to believe anything that happens -- that the other parties speak -- say.

That said, both parties are, you know, incapable of talking to the press at least on some basis. We will start to get indications -- I mean, if -- that this process is breaking down, if it is. That's point one.

But more importantly, I mean, if -- you could have a process in which, you know, especially Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, walks away from the talks. You'll know that, if that happens. And, you know, he's going to take some heat for sustaining the talks. So I think the United States is trying to insulate him from that by setting out this nine-month period.

But, you know, to the second question about, you know, whether he's the right guy or not, I actually think he's in a very powerful position. I think both sides are, actually. I mean, there are limits to their power, but they're in a very strong position. We can get into that a little further on the Israeli side about, you know, the domestic basis of his -- of Netanyahu's strength to negotiate right now. But I think he's in a relatively strong position.

Abu Mazen, you know, he is head of the PLO. He's head of the Palestinian Authority. He's head of Fatah. No one is challenging his authority right now. What he's doing is not necessarily popular, but it's not being -- his legitimacy is not being challenged. His legitimacy has not been renewed recently. That is to say, he's not been elected since 2006. And to me, this is one of the serious problems in Palestinian politics today, is that it's been too long since they've had elections for a number of different bodies.

But, you know, the United States made the decision that -- the secretary made the -- Kerry made the decision that going for talks, you know, against that backdrop was the way to go, rather than try to press the Palestinians for reconciliation or all sorts of long-term investments that would have maybe produced a more new and enhanced leader. So, look, you go to negotiations with the leaders you have, not the leaders you wish you had.

TEPPERMAN: On that note, let's...

DANIN: To paraphrase a former secretary of defense.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Farah Stockman of the Boston Globe. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call. It's great to hear your voice.

DANIN: Hey, Farah.

QUESTION: I'm just wondering whether you expect Netanyahu's government to take up where Olmert left off. I mean, I've read different analyses on that. And I'm also wondering, what do you do about Gaza? Even if you get a deal, how do you -- what are some creative solutions to Gaza? Do you let them come in later? Do you have a referendum where people in Gaza can vote? I mean, how does that work?

DANIN: Both great questions. I mean, on the first one, look, that's going to be their first -- I mean, we can see the first -- the seeds of the first impasse. They're going to get into the rooms. They'll say, OK, let's talk about borders. Netanyahu -- the Palestinians will say, OK, Mr. Netanyahu, where's your map? Bibi will say, OK, I'll produce a map when we -- but I also need to have some security assurances, and let's talk security.

So first they're going to have to get on the subject, because one's -- so then, when they finally do get around to talking about the percentages and territory, Abbas will say, hey, you know, the position of Israel that we've received was the Olmert position. And Benjamin Netanyahu will say, no, that was my predecessor. That's not me. That will be their first impasse.

And then, you know, getting beyond that is going to take -- that's what diplomacy is going to be about, and that's what -- that's where the -- you know, if they start digging each themselves into a ditch, that's where the U.S. role is going to be imperative.

And then there are many different ways you can try to do that. You can either try to bridge the differences on the issue. You can then start to say, wait a second, we're talking about a number of issues, so let's start to -- you know, let's start to bracket each of your positions. That is, your position is X, your position is Y. We agree to disagree for the time being. Let's move on to some other issues, and then let's see if there are some tradeoffs that can be made.

So there a number of ways that this can be -- you know, this will be addressed, but you're right to identify this as the first issue that will be a point of profound difference between the two.

On Gaza -- and this leads to the paper that I wrote recently, you know, about Gaza -- I think that Gaza is one of the huge elephants in the room that no one's talking about and yet can be part of the -- is one of the biggest obstacles to there being real progress, because right now, Abbas does not represent -- only controls part of Palestinian territory for the future Palestinian state. He controls the West Bank.

So the question is, even under the best-case scenario, let's say the two sides negotiate a deal, and let's say they even agree upon it, OK, Gaza exists out of the control of Abbas. And it's controlled by people who are adamantly opposed to the negotiations with Israel and will repudiate whatever agreement Abbas produces with Israel.

This is an argument for reconciliation. This is an argument for bringing Gaza into -- back into the picture. And the paper that I wrote was arguing that basically American policy, which I was part of the formulation of that was made in 2006 towards Gaza, has become outdated, that it had a specific policy agenda, which was to try to oust Hamas from Gaza by force, if necessary, through strangulation, economic and political, and it's failed. And it's no longer the objective of the government of Israel, and we should be rethinking about how we approach Gaza. And it's going to take a lot more cleverness.

This is not an argument for engaging Hamas. This is not an argument for, you know, starting to talk to Hamas. It's to recognize that there's -- when you talk about Hamas and when you talk about Gaza, you're not talking about the same thing. There are, you know, 1.5 million people in Gaza. Most of them hate Hamas. Most of them want nothing to do with Hamas. And we have to be -- we have to put that back on the agenda and be a little more clever, rather than just wishing it will go away, because it contains the seeds for undermining a deal. And it pushes Abbas into adopting a more hard-line position, because he knows -- as long as there -- the more Palestinians there are opposing what he's making peace with Israel, the more it pulls him towards being intransigent.

TEPPERMAN: Thanks, Rob. Let's take the next question. And since we're already under 20 minutes, I just have to ask everyone to please limit themselves to one question so we can get as many in as possible. Operator?

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. Our next question will come from Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this.

DANIN: Hi, Judy.

QUESTION: I wonder if you could -- hi -- I wonder if you could speak to what you think is Bibi's real motivation for this. Many people think it's, A, to get the Europeans off his back -- and excuse me, I came in a little late, so if you touched on this, I apologize -- but, A, to get the Europeans off his back, to get into a process, but not necessarily to reach an agreement, because that's pretty impossible. And that the second goal is to reach an interim agreement. And you see even off-the-record some U.S. officials involved in this talking about an interim agreement.

So, I mean, do you think this whole thing is pointed towards interim? And is that remotely realizable at this point in the game?

TEPPERMAN: Rob, since you already answered the first half of the question, why don't you just focus on the second?

DANIN: Yeah. Well, I'll be brief -- briefer than I've been, at least. You know, I think there's a distinction between an interim agreement and a partial agreement. Interim agreement is a way station on a way to a comprehensive agreement; a partial agreement is to take some of the issues and not some of the others.

I don't think an interim agreement, along the lines of, you know, as laid out in the roadmap, as laid out in the second -- Oslo II is in the cards. I think the Palestinians mean it when they say they don't want an interim arrangement. And, frankly, when you have an interim arrangement, both parties don't want to be too forthcoming, because they know that they're going to have to go another round.

A partial agreement may be more in line or some sort of declaration of principles or an agreement on principle. So you may have something, an agreement along parameters of a few pages that then needs to be fleshed out into a few hundred pages of real text. That is conceivable, but I wouldn't call that an interim. I'd call that a framework agreement.

As for motivation, at the end of the day, you know what, I don't really think it's -- I think people spend too much time focused on motivation. I think the real question is, what is real? And I think -- I know Prime Minister Netanyahu. I've met him, I don't know, hundreds of times, but almost, you know -- a lot. And I've watched him for a long time. This is a man who will make decisions when he has to. And my -- you know, I think the United States now has made the right approach, which is to embrace him and to get him into a process in which he'll have to make some decisions.

This was the first Israeli leader, leader of the Likud, to give up -- the first Likud leader to agree to giving up parts of what is the historic land of Israel. He signed the Hebron Agreement. He signed the Wye agreement. He will sign. It's hard to get there, but he will sign.

OPERATOR: Thank you for your question. Next question comes from Mitchell Plitnick of Inter Press Service. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Danin, I was very interested in your paper on bringing Hamas into the process. And it seems that...

DANIN: No, that's not -- I explicitly said not to bring Hamas into the process. I said bring Gaza into the process.

QUESTION: Bring Gaza, excuse me. That's my bad. Bring Gaza into the process. And, you know, the idea is that you're trying to bring about ways that the talks can actually succeed. And it seems like Secretary Kerry has determined that one of the ways to do that, to push the talks towards success is by keeping them secret, keeping a lid on it, not allowing leaks.

It seems to me that makes things very -- the whole process very vulnerable to just that, to leaks, which are historically in this -- in these discussions have been inevitable. There have always been leaks. There have always been rumors and politics that grow up around that.

So how -- besides just trying to keep a lid on it, which is probably at least to some degree futile -- how do you see managing the process so that leaks and politics around those leaks will not, in the end, you know, pooch the whole deal?

DANIN: Look, it's hard. On the other hand, there's no -- there's no process that's worked that did not take place in -- behind closed doors. You can't have a transparent process that will work. Sides need to be able to play with potential concessions that they then aren't held to.

Ultimately, leaks will not happen when people want there to be -- leaks are made by people who want to bring down or end the process. For it to be successful, it's going to have to be held very closely by a very small circle of people who are committed to trying to make it work. And when there start to be leaks, that's not only an effort to bring it down, but it's a sign that things are getting -- are not going well, because at least one of the -- someone is not invested in a positive outcome.

I'm sorry. The second -- Jonathan said one question, so I missed your second question.

TEPPERMAN: You know what? Let's leave it there and move on to the next question.

DANIN: OK, great.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Evelyn Leopold, a U.N. journalist.

QUESTION: Yes, how do you do? You mentioned at the beginning -- you talked about the timing. And I want to know what you really think about the timings in another context, that the rest of the Middle East is rather tense, to put it mildly, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt. I don't have to give you a list.

DANIN: Yeah.

QUESTION: So why did Secretary -- why do you think Secretary Kerry pointed, did -- pointed to this problem over all the others?

TEPPERMAN: And, Rob, I'd like to also address how you think this affects the Israelis' motivation.

QUESTION: Yes.

DANIN: Right. Look, this is the question -- if I had -- you know, if I had a one-on-one with Secretary Kerry, I would ask him, you know, why this. In scrutinizing very closely what he's said and having met him a few times, I would say it's born of a negative calculation. He keeps returning to the theme that, if this isn't solved within -- I mean, he said it in his -- in his testimony in the Senate -- on the Hill, in the Senate. You know, we have a window of 18 to 24 months, and if this thing isn't resolved soon, the window is closed. I think that's the analysis that drives his sense of urgency.

I think there's a danger here in both putting out that message, that the window's closing, and setting up such an ambitious and comprehensive agenda as he's done, which is that he's basically saying it's all or nothing, it's now or never, and the danger is, if you wind up without now, you could actually cause harm.

And so it's really -- it's important to inject a real sense of urgency and drama. He succeeded in that. I worry that he hasn't built in enough of a safety net. So I think that's necessary.

TEPPERMAN: Next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you for the question. Next question comes from Matthew Lee of Inner City Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, sure. Thanks a lot. I wanted to -- it seems like -- you said the idea is that settlements would continue or not be halted during this. I wanted to know if -- one, if you think that's true and, two, if you think Palestine will make any -- any further attempts or inroads at joining other international organizations in kind of raising that leverage or the ICC -- what you think will happen during these nine months in terms -- on both of those tracks?

DANIN: Yeah. Well, on the latter, I think that that was the -- the big achievement for Israel. I mean, Israel paid -- is making a great -- you know, is releasing 104 prisoners. I think the Palestinian gesture or step is to suspend its efforts at isolating Israel internationally, confronting Israel in international fora. And I think what Secretary Kerry has done is basically built a fence around the next nine months that says this process moves forward and nothing happens.

Now, you point to one of the many areas of ambiguity that remain. What about settlements? The Palestinians had insisted on a settlement freeze as a precondition to coming to talks; now that seems to have been abandoned. Is there a private understanding about settlements with the Palestinians? Is there a private understanding with the government of Israel that there will be no surprises, as has sometimes been a formulation one has -- that there will be no building outside of settlement lines, that there will be no big announcements? I don't know. No one knows.

But I think this is a question that the opponents, especially within the Israeli government -- remember, the housing minister is a settler. They're going to test this. They're going to -- and so I think you're going to see a lot of struggling taking place within the government of Israel.

Now, will the minister of defense approve these steps towards, you know, further settlement building? I don't know. I think we're going to see -- I think we'll probably see a fudge on both sides, that both sides will back down, but it will not be a clean settlement freeze, nor will there probably be a, you know, all-out land grab, if you will.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Terence Smith of PBS NewsHour. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, I'm wondering if -- what you will consider to be defined as success in -- in this initial encounter, merely an agreement to talk more? Or something more?

DANIN: I'm sorry. Just to be clear, which encounter? From today?

QUESTION: From this initial engagement in -- as somebody described it earlier, talks about talks.

DANIN: Well, no, I think they've agreed to a lot more than that. And I think Secretary Kerry laid that out. I mean, they've agreed to now -- to negotiate for the next nine months on all the issues, not just borders and security, but Jerusalem, refugees, everything. They've identified the goal as being an end of conflict, end of claims. They've set a very ambitious goal.

I think that's the -- I think that's the achievement from this round. They're going to launch it -- the actual rolling up the sleeves in the next two weeks, as the secretary said today, in the region. And now we're going to -- you know, we move from kind of the -- now we move into the slog of translating -- you know, turning off the camera lights and actually getting them into the room, into the unsexy, very long, tedious and painful process of actually trying to make progress on the issues on the table.

But, you know, the big achievement was getting them back into negotiations in a serious way. I suppose the next big step will be, at some point soon, Netanyahu and Abbas will meet, because they ultimately will be the decision-makers.

But they will -- you know, but that -- that may take some time, you know, but they -- I mean, both of them are represented by very close allies or close political allies. I mean, not only is Tzipi Livni there, who's not a political ally, but is working very hard, and I think that was reflected in her comments today. She's working very hard to win over not only the trust of the Palestinians and the international community, but her own boss, the prime minister of Israel. And she's got Yitzhak Molcho, a long -- childhood friend of the prime minister and his closest aide there to make sure she doesn't deviate. So I think they're covered there.

And, you know, Saeb Erekat is the institutional memory and the negotiator of the Palestinians since Oslo. So, you know, he'll -- both sides are clearly serious and will be represented. And at a certain point very soon, I would imagine Abbas and Netanyahu will be brought to the -- you know, face-to-face.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Oliver Grimm of Die Presse.

QUESTION: Hello. My question would be, could you -- could you give us -- give us sort of an overview of the forces on both sides that would have an interest in sabotaging the negotiations? Who would be the groups, the political groups that had most to lose from a peace settlement and a settlement of the conflict? Thank you.

DANIN: Well, I can't give you a broad overview. I'll give you a few bullet points. You know, I mean, clearly, those settlers on the Israeli side who live outside of the settlement blocs I think are those who will feel the most vulnerable, because those are the people who clearly will have to be relocated, you know, should there be a territorial agreement, which will be -- is a sine qua non of any -- even a partial agreement.

On the Palestinian side, you know, Hamas and other Islamists and radical groups are -- have made it clear they're opposed to these negotiations. They will reject what Abbas is doing, and they have a lot of interest in seeing this not come to fruition and, if it does come to fruition, to seeing that the Palestinian public doesn't accept it.

So I think one of the biggest challenges we're going to face in the immediate period is we've seen a lot of cooperation between the two sides' security services in keeping the situation extremely quiet. Last year was the most -- saw the fewest number of fatalities -- Palestinian-on-Israeli fatalities, I think, in a number of years, if not, you know, in history. And there are going to be forces that are going to want to resort to violence to try to undermine the political process. And I think that's going to be one of the biggest challenges and the most dangerous challenges in the immediate period ahead.

TEPPERMAN: OK, we have time for one more quick question and a quick answer.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our final question will come from David Kashi of the International Business Times. Please go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for speaking with us. I'll try to keep this as short as possible. So you mentioned that the pivot in, you know, other important agendas on President Barack's table and the U.S. administration's table. In light of that, the fact that the U.S. has become far less reliant on oil imports and the fact that, you know, we could be -- have the potential to become export -- you know, our exports would exceed, you know, Saudi Arabia by, you know, 2020, do you see that -- you know, does this give Washington greater freedom from the pressures bought by -- brought by Middle Eastern oil producers to embrace this or that approach to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? Does this have any effect of the changing landscape at all, do you see?

DANIN: No, is the short answer. First of all, as you -- we're talking a nine-month timeline versus 2020. The issue for the United States is not its own oil dependence, as much as Europe's and Japan's and the industrialized world, so even if -- once we achieve oil independence, that doesn't mean the international or Western economies have, and so we'll continue to have an interest in Middle East oil. So I don't see that factor changing.

And it assumes a direct linkage between our interest in the peace process and oil. We also have an interest in Israel and what kind of Israel exists. And is this an Israel that we feel comfortable with? And clearly, an Israel that occupies another people is not an Israel we want, and it's not an Israel that Israel wants. So, you know, peace has its own intrinsic merits with the Palestinians independent of whatever geostrategic considerations come into it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

TEPPERMAN: Well, Kerry has set a nine-month deadline, but unfortunately our deadline is 4 o'clock, so we have to stop there. I apologize to everyone who didn't get to ask their question. Let me just thank Rob so much for taking the time to do this. Thank you all for coming in. And for anyone who has an appetite for more, let me direct to cfr.org, to foreignaffairs.com, and especially to Rob's blog, Middle East Matters, which can be found at cfr.org, as well.

Thanks...

DANIN: If I can -- Jonathan, if I could just say one thing -- I know you have to run -- but Jonathan has been extremely disciplined and wonderful in this conversation. Jonathan is a Middle East expert in his own right and has written a lot about these issues himself and has been very self-effacing and quiet in this discussion in interjecting himself, but I want to commend him to all of you, as well, to look to his writings and his work on these issues, as well. So thank you, Jonathan, for being such a wonderful sport about all this and letting me steal the show.

TEPPERMAN: Well, thank you for that, and it was certainly my pleasure.

DANIN: Great. Thank you all.

TEPPERMAN: OK, bye-bye.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes today's call. You may now disconnect your line. Have a good day. Thank you.

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