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Obama Looking for Negotiations to Produce Lasting, Not Interim Mideast Peace Solution

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 23, 2009

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Although President Barack Obama's meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did not produce any agreements when they met in New York on Tuesday, CFR Senior Fellow Steven A. Cook said it was significant that Obama was pressing for "permanent status negotiations" and not another effort to secure an interim accord. But he added that "the problem is, as has been the case for the previous eight years, the conditions on the ground don't lend themselves to progress."

President Obama had Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands at the beginning of the three-party talks this morning. Then he said that "the permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon." What did you make of this?

It is admirable that the Obama administration is approaching the issue with the kind of vigor that it is. I wouldn't put tremendous amount of stock in the handshake between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. They had to do it in front of the president and the world press corps. While we can chalk this up as a statement that is reminiscent of the president's predecessors, it is noteworthy that the president did focus on a negotiation directly related to final status issues. He is saying that the time for interim steps is over and that any kind of effort on the part of either of the parties to walk negotiations back to interim steps is not going to be acceptable to the United States. Now what the Obama administration is willing to do to ensure that the parties don't try to bog this down into interim steps is unclear from the president's statement. But it is clear that they are very much interested in moving very quickly on final status. The problem is--as has been the case for the previous eight years--the conditions on the ground don't lend themselves to progress in these negotiations. There remains the problem of Israeli settlements, and there remains the problem of a divided Palestine, Palestinian incitement, and the threat of Palestinian violence.

Obama launched his Middle East initiative the same week he was inaugurated when he sent his special envoy, former Senator George J. Mitchell, to the region. Why has it been so difficult for Mitchell to get an agreement from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to sit down and start negotiating?

It has been so difficult because--just as President Obama's predecessor found--the conditions on the ground are neither conducive to a resumption of peace talks nor to progress should those peace talks resume. There is actually quite a bit of distance between the diplomatic pageantry of, for example, the Annapolis summit of November 2007 organized by President [George W.] Bush and various kinds of shuttle diplomacy, and what's actually really going on there, and the irreconcilable demands of both sides.

Can you quickly say what those demands are?

From the Palestinian perspective, it's quite clear that they want to see a halt of all Jewish settlements on the West Bank. This is not something that is new with the Obama administration and is not necessarily a new Palestinian demand. Of course, in the past, the Palestinians have negotiated while settlement construction was going on, but now there is a sense within the Palestinian community that time is really running out with settlement construction continuing, particularly in Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to have East Jerusalem as their capital.

The Israelis would like to ensure their own security. They have no confidence that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas actually represents the Palestinian people. In addition, the Netanyahu government has conditions on what a notional Palestinian state would be. It would have no control of air space, ports, and a variety of other conditions. And a new wrinkle to this is that they want the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. That's problematic from the Palestinian perspective, given that 20 percent of the Israeli population is Palestinian citizens of Israel, and obviously not Jewish and are a remnant of the Palestinian pre-1948 population before the establishment of Israel.

Given these problems, why does the United States keep pressing ahead, as President Obama has, by meeting with both of these leaders today in New York and pushing both sides to send their negotiating teams back to Washington next week?

Senator Mitchell has only been at this for nine months, and this is a century-long conflict. I don't think we should expect that there is going to be a dramatic breakthrough given the structure of this conflict. What's important is that Mitchell has been out there and trying to work on the problem. That, in and of itself, is a difference from the Bush administration's approach to the problem. But you do raise a very interesting point.  What possible benefit do policymakers see in trying to resolve the conflict? The Obama administration believes that the conflict is a national security concern of the United States given the linkages to other issues in the region--specifically the linkage to the Iranian challenge, and given the fact that the Iranians used the Palestinian issue to gain influence in Arab politics and that necessarily has an effect on American interests and allies in the region.

And in general, the idea of Israeli security is a national security interest of the United States. That is why the Obama administration has seen this as an important priority to finally try to wind this conflict down, but they have learned in the first nine months, despite the overwhelming popularity of the president abroad, his continuing popularity at home, and his dramatic personal appeal, these are extraordinarily difficult issues. He used that appeal and his charisma in his talks with both Abbas and Netanyahu in New York; however, there doesn't seem to be a real prospect for moving the process in any kind of significant direction beyond what Mitchell has achieved.

Now why was it that in the prior Israeli administration, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was able to sit down with Abbas? They had many one-on-one discussions. Is there a personality difference, or is it because the Palestinians perceive in the right-wing government of Netanyahu a much tougher approach?

There was a sense that Ehud Olmert understood that there was a demographic issue facing Israel in that Israel's long-term security was in ultimately a significant withdrawal from the West Bank, although keeping a variety of settlements along the Green Line [the border area]. There were plans that were floated that would keep a large number of settlers on the western side of the wall and the Green Line, and moving some settlers across the Green Line. There is no confidence on the part of the Palestinians that the Netanyahu government is interested in any kind of significant withdrawal from the West Bank. That being said, you have to give credit where credit is due: The government under Prime Minister Netanyahu has done more to ease the problems in terms of daily life and what the Palestinian economy in the West Bank has been facing by removing checkpoints, and easing Palestinian movement throughout the West Bank so that there is some sense that Palestinian daily life and the Palestinian economy is starting to rebound. But there is very little trust that this government is intending to move the process in a direction that would ultimately lead toward territorial compromise and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Remember, Prime Minister Netanyahu did utter the words Palestinian state and two-state solution, but he put so many caveats on that Palestinian state that it really is no different from the situation the Palestinians find themselves in right now.

Do you think there's any chance President Obama might bring real pressure to bear on Israel?

He has certainly called the Israelis out on the settlement issue and this has caused a mini crisis between the two governments. The problem is what next can they do? Are they willing to use the financial stick with the Israelis? I don't perceive that they have moved in that direction thus far, that they would tinker with the aid package that Israel gets in order to alter Israeli behavior. This is going to be a continuation of the president and the administration's efforts to persuade, cajole, and pressure the Israelis without backing it up with any kind of financial sanctions.

And on the other side, Obama has been trying to get the Arab states to bring some pressure on the Palestinians. He's been trying to get them also to offer Israel some concessions like airspace rights if Israel freezes the settlements, but nothing much has happened, has it?

No, there hasn't been too much movement on that front. We're in a situation where the Arab states are saying that the Israelis have to make good on this American demand for a settlement freeze for us to take steps towards normalization. People are talking about the reopening of trade offices and low-level diplomatic representation that the Israelis, some of the Gulf states, and some of the North African states had during the Oslo process in the 1990s. This idea of allowing Israeli civilian airliners to traverse Saudi airspace has essentially been taken off the table, but it's these kinds of things that have been loaded.

And what Mitchell has been able to achieve is the administration had demanded a settlement freeze for a year. Netanyahu has apparently agreed to a nine-month freeze, but that is dependent upon a number of things the Israelis would like to see the Palestinians to do, and the Palestinians are saying, "we want the settlement freeze before we do anything else." So we're stuck at "No, you first, sir," "No, you first, sir," and the United States trying to cajole all parties to take the steps they need to in order to at least get back to the negotiating table.

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