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Questionable Timing on Mideast Talks

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 30, 2010

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U.S. President Barack Obama this week hosts a conference to launch the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks. Yet "it's hard to be optimistic" on prospects for the talks, says CFR's Steven A. Cook, noting the political situation in Israel makes it tough for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to extend a moratorium on building in the West Bank settlements. Cook adds that President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is also unable to make many compromises, and had to be pressured by Obama to agree to the talks. Cook cites one bright development in the region: the effort by Palestinian authorities to develop the economy and infrastructure in the West Bank, which he says is analogous to the Jewish efforts to build institutions prior to Israeli statehood in 1948.

Tomorrow, there will be another highly publicized Middle East conference where President Obama will host President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to open up a new round of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Do you see much chance of any success coming from these talks?

It's hard to be optimistic about these direct talks. It's hard to talk about direct talks as an achievement because there have been years of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians that produced very little. But beyond the kind of symbolism of hope such talks produce, the reality is that at the domestic political level, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are capable of making the types of concessions that are necessary to achieve significant progress. And that's what's so puzzling to me about the secretary of State [Hillary Clinton] and the president talking about a one-year timeline.

Why do you say that?

Obviously they know things that we don't, but if you look at Israeli domestic politics, that government has been stable primarily because it has resisted American pressure about the peace process. Netanyahu is not dumb; he can read history pretty well. He understands what happened to him during his first term as prime minister [1996-1999] and he understands what happened to every government before that in the 1990s and every one since: Those governments have been brought down by the right wing, and he has been protecting his right flank. And that militates against his taking the kinds of steps that would be necessary to meet the Palestinians' minimal requirements, and for coming to some sort of settlement of the conflict.

[A]t the domestic political level, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are capable of making the types of concessions that are necessary to achieve significant progress.

What about the Palestinians?

The Palestinians remain divided, that's been the situation since the January 2006 elections [in which Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament] and the June takeover in 2007 of Gaza by Hamas. So the Palestinian leadership is clearly divided. They are reluctant to go to these direct talks. It took an enormous amount of diplomatic and political pressure to get them to agree to these talks. That's one of the reasons why Mubarak and Abdullah are going to be there, because the Palestinians fear that if they get involved in these direct talks they will be vulnerable to attacks from within both the factions that support the Palestinian Authority, mainly Fatah, but more importantly, they'd be vulnerable to political attacks from Hamas, because the negotiations rarely lead anywhere. And from the Palestinian perspective, the Israelis do everything possible to delegitimize their position while at the same time claiming that they're interested in direct negotiations. This is political poison for Abbas. He has no real domestic political incentive to go forward with these talks. His only incentive is not wanting to embarrass President Obama.

A key issue is the Israeli settlements on the West Bank, on which there was a moratorium on new building that ends on September 26. Abbas has said the talks cannot continue unless the moratorium is extended, and yet Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a major player in the coalition cabinet, said the other day that the settlement freeze will no longer be in effect after September 26. So what's going to happen?

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian ConflictWell, that's exactly right. If the Palestinians maintain the position that extending the so-called moratorium on settlement building is the litmus test for continuing these talks, it is quite likely that you're not going to have talks after this initial round. Lieberman is an important player in coalition politics, although I don't believe he's an important player necessarily in Israeli policymaking. He's been sidelined by Netanyahu and his team, but of course, Lieberman can bolt the coalition over an issue like this, and can create political instability in Israel. The Israeli cabinet is engaging in intense discussions about whether to formally extend this moratorium. Perhaps they're searching for some sort of formula that will satisfy the different factions within the coalition, but this is a very, very difficult situation that the Israelis find themselves in. And it may end up being a deal breaker.

But one note on the current moratorium: It is true that the Obama administration called this moratorium "an unprecedented step," but we should all be mindful of the fact that the moratorium was directly related only to new housing starts in the West Bank. Whatever construction was in the pipeline when Netanyahu agreed to this moratorium has continued. So even though there's been a moratorium, there's been a bit of a construction boom in the West Bank. This compromises Abbas and his team and their message to the Palestinians that negotiation is the way to achieve Palestinian rights and ultimately a Palestinian state in the West Bank. It is useful for Hamas to use this continued construction to try to undermine Abbas.

Can you find any note of optimism in advance of the negotiations?

It took Ariel Sharon a year and broke his political party to evacuate seven thousand settlers from Gaza, so how do you deal with these issues of big numbers, big settlements?

There is one optimistic point: This whole notion of bottom-up. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has done the hard work of building Palestinian state institutions from the ground up. In fact, in some ways he has taken a page from the Israeli playbook before the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948. The Jewish community in Palestine began building institutions for the Israeli state long before Israel's declaration of independence. And by developing the Palestinian security forces, by developing the West Bank economy, by providing stability, by improving the services that the Palestinian Authority can deliver, Fayyad has created momentum from the ground up for the positive development of Palestinian state-building. The Palestinian Authority still has tremendous problems and challenges ahead of it. But you can see in pockets where Fayyad has been successful, and he gives people a certain amount of hope that that process of bottom-up can bring something to fruition for the Palestinians. But again there are enormous challenges. These things are taking place under continued Israeli occupation, which obviously compromises the ability to completely realize Fayyad's goals.

The Israelis say they have eased up on the onerous check points on West Bank roads.

That is true, and that has been very helpful to Salam Fayyad's project. The picture is not quite as rosy as some commentators and columnists have suggested, but it's certainly better than it was two, three, four years ago where the problems in the West Bank were even more significant than they are now.

As you pointed out, the United States has set a one-year timeline for progress in the talks. What's the point of that?

It's not clear what the point is. The idea is that these talks should not be open-ended negotiations that could drag on forever and ever. This is a concern of the Palestinians who, from their perspective, see fifteen previous years of negotiations, and during that time the Israeli settler population has increased. It certainly doubled during the Oslo period [1993-2000], and they don't want to provide an opportunity for the Israelis to drag out these negotiations in perpetuity, while at the same time continuing to expropriate Palestinian land, and making it more difficult for the Palestinians to realize their goals of statehood. You can understand the logic behind that given what has gone on before. The question is whether one year is anywhere close to being a realistic timeline for really getting back to business and making a breakthrough in the negotiations.

After the Annapolis talks at the end of 2007, Abbas and then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert held a series of discussions. Everyone reports that they were making good progress until Olmert had to quit because of corruption charges.

There were reports that there had been significant progress on borders and some other issues, but of course this came to naught for a variety of reasons--Olmert having to leave office, the Israeli military operation in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009--but the nature of that progress was never made clear and so was it real progress? Were we talking about what borders might look like without ever really getting down to specifics? Were these negotiations about negotiations for borders? Nobody really knows for sure other than the fact that people supposedly in the know were suggesting that there was progress. We have to assume that, particularly with a new Israeli government, we're back to square one.

There's a general consensus that in any agreement, the major Israeli settlements in the West Bank would probably remain and there would be a trade-off on territory. And that the Palestinian "right of return" would be handled in a way in which Palestinians would be told they can go to the West Bank to live, otherwise there would be some form of compensation and Palestinians with terrific hardship cases would be allowed into Israel. But I guess the real problem is on Jerusalem?

All these issues are quite difficult. Let's just take the settlement issue. There are major Israeli settlements that are deep inside of Palestinian territory. How do you accommodate that? Do you build a security barrier around those, and thus the wall cuts very deep into Palestinian territory? Even though there have been plans which suggest that you can move 80 percent of the settlement population on the Western side of the security barrier, that leaves 20 percent of the settler population. It doesn't sound like a lot when you talk about percentages but when you talk about raw numbers, you're talking at the low end of about 65 to 70,000 people. It took Ariel Sharon a year and broke his political party to evacuate 7,000 settlers from Gaza, so how do you deal with these issues of big numbers, big settlements?

I would assume they would stay.

The question is, who stays and how do you provide for their security, and how is it accommodated, and would the Palestinians even agree to that issue? Refugees also are a huge issue. The Israeli government is adamantly opposed to letting Palestinian refugees back into Israel proper. The question is whether those refugees want to go to the West Bank or not. Something that's actually very interesting is a recent development that was little-noticed and little-reported on. Lebanon has extended Palestinian refugees the right to work. Of all the places where Palestinians have ended up as refugees, Lebanon has been the absolute worst, the least accommodating for Palestinian refugees. They've never been able to work before and suddenly they have [the right]. And of course you point out the difficulties associated with Jerusalem and the seemingly irreconcilable claims of Israelis and Palestinians on that city. This just points out that as positive as the return of direct talks is and the possibility that perhaps the Obama administration will get lucky in these negotiations, these issues are front and center and extraordinarily difficult. They haven't gotten less challenging just because there are now direct talks.

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