Proclamations of the peace process's death, issued today by some, are premature. True, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has been ailing for some time. The physicians attending to it have now called for a new course of treatment. After nearly two years of pushing for a settlement moratorium as the path towards direct negotiations, the United States has acknowledged the obvious: The old approach simply was not working.
To be sure, the aim of getting Israelis and Palestinians to conduct face-to-face talks has been dealt a serious blow. But the United States was expending too much energy and political capital haggling with Israel over settlements, rather than addressing fundamental issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians. Yes, Israeli settlement activity is a problem, and the United States should continue to call for a moratorium. But U.S. credibility was harmed by allowing a moratorium it could not attain be a precondition for talks.
The U.S. shift back to proximity talks is not ideal. Indirect negotiations are more difficult than face-to-face talks. They don't allow the parties to build trust or effective relations or see where tradeoffs can be made. When Israeli and Palestinian negotiators come to Washington in the upcoming week, they will likely adopt tougher positions, since they will be appealing to the mediator--the United States-- in the hope that Washington will then try to split differences.
But the sad reality was that three rounds of direct talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas in September only reinforced the two leaders' mutual suspicions of one another. Under such conditions, proximity talks may yield more progress. Such was the case for President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, when personal relations between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat became so poisoned that keeping them apart and shuttling between the two of them was found to be more effective.
It is not clear if proximity talks are the new Plan B, which will require significantly greater diplomatic engagement than has been expended so far, or if it is a holding pattern while a new strategy is devised. Three months have already passed since President Barack Obama declared his goal of resolving the core issues within a year. U.S. officials today reaffirmed that seemingly unrealistic goal. This is dangerous, for it risks either raising expectations that something dramatic must happen within the next nine months, or else further undermining U.S. credibility when the gap between aspirations and realities remain.
Instead, the administration should be working on three parallel tracks. First, it should be looking to ratchet down expectations of an imminent comprehensive agreement while moving in parallel to get a serious negotiating process in train--direct or indirect. Second, it should focus on preparing a safety net, lest any further diplomatic deterioration precipitate violence. Greater attention should be devoted to improving on-the-ground Israeli-Palestinian coordination aimed at building the economy and institutions of a Palestinian state. And third, the United States should be clear that a unilateral declaration of statehood harms Palestinian national interests. It risks placing the Palestinians somewhere they have long rejected - Stage II of the Roadmap: a state with provisional borders. Under such a scenario, Palestine would be a bifurcated state where Israel controls the majority of the West Bank, Hamas controls Gaza, and the world could conclude that the plight of the stateless Palestinians has been largely resolved.