The first round of Mideast talks in Washington this week was serious and businesslike; both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refrained from theatrics and took steps to demonstrate sensitivity to the others' needs. For the first time, Netanyahu called Abbas "his partner" and acknowledged the Palestinian goal of genuine sovereignty. For his part, Abbas condemned terrorism and called for an end to the conflict--a long sought after Israeli aspiration.
The talks ended with both sides agreeing to U.S. calls for a framework agreement--"to establish the fundamental compromises necessary," as chief mediator George Mitchell described it--and then a final agreement that ends the conflict, all within a year. The thinking seems to be that a framework agreement will demonstrate progress and build momentum for the end game. The fundamental problem with a framework agreement is that it forces the parties to make their core compromises without realizing tangible delivery of their fundamental aspirations.
The Palestinians, in particular, will resist a framework agreement without a clear timeline for both a final agreement and its implementation. A framework agreement is also problematic because it forces the parties to conclude two negotiated agreements, not just one. This is exceedingly ambitious, and will require a built-in safety net to ensure that failure to realize this goal does not result in renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence.
While these Washington talks conjured up images of failed past efforts, there are reasons to believe this process may succeed where others have not. U.S. President Barack Obama is ratcheting up this effort with at least two and a half more years in his presidency, and perhaps another four more. His predecessors, Presidents Clinton and Bush, only went into high gear during the twilight of their terms, leaving insufficient time to close the deal.
Second, the fact that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have done so much to work through the painstaking details means that the two sides are now intensely familiar with the complex issues they confront. The longstanding issues include borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, and others
Third, Palestinian security forces are working for the first time in earnest to provide law and order and combat terrorism. Israeli security officials acknowledge this, as well as the unprecedented security cooperation between the two sides. It marks a fundamental shift from times past when Israel suspected the Palestinian leadership of turning a blind eye toward, or even encouraging, terrorist activities.
Terrorism will continue to threaten the negotiations--witness the two attacks on the eve of the talks that killed four Israelis. Yet following that, Palestinian authorities interceded in force to pursue the perpetrators.
The talks ended with the two sides agreeing to meet in another summit in mid-September, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attending, and then to negotiate fortnightly thereafter. This intensive engagement moves the disagreement over renewing the Israeli settlement moratorium, set to expire on September 26, into the context of the negotiations. The disagreement over the renewal of the expiration--Netanyahu says he can't do it, Abbas says he can't negotiate without it--remains the first major challenge for the talks. The disagreement is serious, and still could prove the undoing of this effort.