PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


Resumption of Direct Middle East Peace Talks

Speaker: Robert Danin, Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Moderator: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,
August 30, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations



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 the presentation, the floor will be open for your questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you'd like to ask a question.

It is now my pleasure to turn the conference over to Mr. Bernard Gwertzman.

Mr. Gwertzman, you may begin, sir.

BERNARD GWERTZMAN: Hi, I'm Bernard Gwertzman, a consulting editor at the Council on Foreign Relations. And it's my pleasure to introduce Robert Danin, who is a senior fellow for Middle East and African Studies at the Council. Mr. Danin for the past decade has worked primarily on Arab-Israeli affairs, and most recently headed the office of Tony Blair's mission in Jerusalem. Tony Blair represents the Quartet -- that is, the U.S., Russia, European Union and the United Nations, all trying to work out some kind of peace agreement between the Arabs -- between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Robert, let me ask you a question just to begin. Most of the commentary in advance of the start of these direct talks later this week has been, I would have to say, on the pessimistic style -- side. Nobody is really giving much chance of success. Is there any optimism out there?

ROBERT DANIN: I think there is optimism out there. I know that -- you're right, people after 20 years -- nearly 20 years of Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, there is what I call peace-process fatigue, but I'm extremely hopeful. I think there are conditions in place that could help lead to a negotiated outcome. Obviously the conditions are not ripe, or not ideal, but I don't know that they're ever ideal.

And the real question is, are they going to get better with time or are they going to get worse? And it seems that the president has decided that left to their own devices that conditions will get worse, and so therefore we need to act now.

GWERTZMAN: Now, one more question for me, and then we'll turn it over to the many people out there waiting to ask you your thoughts. I think the key issue right now is the pending end of the Israeli temporary freeze on new settlement building in the West Bank, which expires on September 26th. Most of the Israeli politicians who've spoken out on this have insisted that the freeze should end, and therefore a new settlements -- new settlement building should commence. President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has said such an action would doom the talks even before they got started more than a week or so.

What do you think they will do on the settlements?

DANIN: Well, I think this is the most serious challenge right now for the negotiators and for the administration, the question of how does -- the settlement moratorium that expires on the 26th is handled. As you rightly pointed out, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he will not renew the settlement moratorium. President Abbas has said he will not continue with the negotiations if the -- if settlement activity resumes.

This could be handled potentially through some creative formulation that allow some sort of tacit understanding in which the prime minister is not -- does not require to affirm a moratorium, but de jure -- but de facto continues to implement such a thing -- such a moratorium. That's one possible way to address this. Some in Israel -- one of the ministers in the prime minister's government, Dan Meridor, has suggested another approach, which is to allow settlement activity to resume in the key settlement blocks that are likely to be kept by Israel in the -- in a final status outcome, while freezing settlements in the outlying settlements, those that lie beyond the barrier. Others in Israel don't like that.

The Palestinians have not indicated that they are amenable to that solution. There are conflicting reports coming out of the administration about whether or not that would be something the administration is willing to support. I think for now the answer is no.

I think the administration's calculation is that it's better to -- and one of the reasons that the administration wanted the negotiations to start now is that it will be easier to have the settlement question addressed within the context of a negotiating process than outside of one.

And so once you've already had the parties at the table and are negotiating, then it will be more difficult for them to walk way and potentially easier for them to come to an agreement, and indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu may agree to renew the settlement moratorium. It may be easier for him once the negotiations start and he can point to that as something that is an asset that is in Israel's interest, and so therefore, it is worth biting the bullet.

And it's a way he may be able to say -- because one of the issues that's being thrown at him is that he has said he will not renew the settlement moratorium. He may be able to say we're in negotiation now, it's a different context, so what I said before doesn't apply now. That may be his out.

GWERTZMAN: Okay, I'm going to turn this now over to the people who have called in to ask questions. So, go ahead.


OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, you may do so at this time by pressing star, one. We'll take all questions in the order they are received, and if at any time you'd like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star, two. Again, to ask a question, please press star, one now.

Our first question comes from Chandrakant Pancholi with Overseas India Weekly.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Can you please enumerate the issues, right? Like, the issues that can be resolved easily and an agreement can be reached, and the other sticky issues, just like the ones you already described, like glue pad issues where the mouse runs on the glue pad and gets stuck. So you may describe those issues also, and what is your opinion on how this can be solved? And what is your analysis about how to deal with Hamas problem there? And the Pakistan -- and the Palestinian state?

DANIN: I'm sorry, the last ---

GWERTZMAN: Let me just interrupt for a minute. Let's try to keep our questions short in the future. Okay, go ahead.

DANIN: Yeah, the -- well -- (laughs) -- the topics that are under discussion, I mean, first I would preface by saying there is not yet an agreed-upon agenda for the talks. What Prime Minister Netanyahu has said was that all topics can be on the table, and so they are coming to meet, and we know that the basis of the negotiations are to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And Secretary Clinton announced that the goal was to establish a Palestinian state, and -- living side by side in peace and security with Israel.

We know the core issues that face the parties: settlements, the future of Jerusalem, borders, security arrangements, the final disposition of the Palestinian refugees. I could spend a lot of time trying to analyze each issue, but what I would say is, some people advocate trying an approach in which you address each issue sequentially, maybe try to reach a partial agreement on some of them, and then therefore you make it easier to move forward.

Another camp has it that, no, best to have all issues resolved concurrently, that no issue is resolved until all are resolved. I advocate the latter approach for the reason being that what that approach allows you to do is to then make tradeoffs between issues. So therefore, it may be that on one issue, such as the future of Jerusalem, there may be a solution that leans more towards one party's position, whereas on the issue of refugees, there may be a solution that leans more towards the other. And they can play one off against one another, whereas the actual solution itself to that one item may be harder to broker. So what will allow them to get over an impasse that may occur on any given issue, may be able to trade off on the various issues.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Nathan Goodman with The Forward (ph).

QUESTIONER: Yeah, hi. I'd like to know if you have any idea why the Obama administration decided to go forward with this push right now. Is there a feeling there that a breakthrough can be achieved? Is there any sense of a time frame of when this window of opportunity for a two-state solution will close and it will be too late?

DANIN: Well, I think the "why now?" question -- I mean, the administration has been pursuing this since the very early days of the administration. On the eighth day of President Obama's administration, he appointed Senator Mitchell as his envoy and negotiator, and he has been active ever since, trying to get the parties to the table.

I think the administration intensified the efforts after they got the parties into proximity talks in May, recognizing that the settlement moratorium issue will come up in late September, and I think they want to have the negotiations started by then for the reasons I have stated earlier: that is, that it will be much easier to finesse that issue once you're already in the context of negotiations than if you're outside of the context of negotiations. So I think that helps explain -- I think the "why now" was, one, they had reached a point where they had exhausted the issue of the proximity talks and the barriers to getting to direct talks. Secondly, the assurances that both parties were looking for to get to direct talks had been provided and, third, it had been intensified with an eye towards the settlement moratorium coming quickly and a desire to get the negotiations started before that.

GWERTZMAN: Can I just add, do you think it's related also to the fact that the General Assembly will be convening in September?

DANIN: Well, yes, in a more -- in a broader sense. I mean, President Obama will come to New York, have a long series of bilateral meetings, will address the General Assembly. New York is kind of the kick-off of the intense diplomatic season, and it would be much better for the administration to be able to go to New York with a process underway.

It helps diffuse criticism, helps kind of put the agenda -- put this issue on the side and move on to other issues, and also gives the administration enhanced credibility because it says this is an issue that it's identified as a national security priority, and so therefore it shows that it's actually pursuing this with vigor.

OPERATOR Our next question comes from Stewart Ain with the New York Jewish Week.

QUESTIONER: I'm reminded that during the peace agreement with Israel, it was the two leaders of the countries meeting in a summit with the president of the United States that finally arrived at least a settlement. Here, I believe Bibi Netanyahu said, "Well, I'll meet with them every two weeks." He's appointed a chief negotiator and I guess Erekat will be the chief negotiator of the Palestinians. Do you really think that that's the way to go?

DANIN: I'm sorry, you said in the peace agreement with Israel and whom?

GWERTZMAN: He means Egypt, I think.


DANIN: Well, look, I think we're at the beginning of a negotiation now and the tactics that will be employed in the negotiation will have to follow the problems and issues that emerge. What President Obama is trying to do, it seems, is on the one hand to demonstrate his commitment to this process by hosting a dinner the night before the negotiations start, but at the same time leaving the actual negotiations at this point to his secretary of State, to let her pursue this so as not to expend political capital, presidential capital, early on in the process. Yes, I think the expectation for everyone is that at some point the president will have to roll up his sleeves and get involved, but I think it makes good sense not to do that at the very beginning so as to maintain the presidential capital that may be required down the road. You don't want to spend it too early.

QUESTIONER: And the same would go for the leaders of the Palestinians and Israel?

DANIN: I'm sorry?

QUESTIONER: The same would go for the leaders of the Palestinian and Israel? Netanyahu is only going to meet every two weeks?

DANIN: Well, I'm not sure I understand the question. Are you suggesting that every two weeks is too infrequent or too --

QUESTIONER: Well, as I say, I say -- remember they met, it was really at the summit meeting where they both sat down and they knew what the issues were and they were able to resolve them and, instead of having emissaries, they're trying to negotiate.

DANIN: Well, what we saw recently was Prime Minister Olmert made considerable progress with President Abbas in moving towards a final status agreement. I think each negotiation is sui generis and the two sides will have to reach a comfort level.

If you recall, at a certain point in the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt, actually Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat stopped meeting each other because the personal animosity between them had actually grown and it was deemed counterproductive for the two leaders to meet.

So I think you -- there has to be a flexibility here. And one of the important roles for the United States here is to be watching this negotiation, taking its temperature, seeing where the problems emerge and then coming up with creative ideas for how to -- how to bridge them both procedurally as well as substantively.

And so it all depends on the chemistry that emerges as the two sides start to engage.

QUESTIONER: Good. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Rick Richman with Jewish Current Issues.

QUESTIONER: You wrote a piece last week saying that there needs to be greater attention devoted to Palestinian state institutions.

DANIN: Right.

QUESTIONER: Other than the Palestinian police forces, what state institutions were you referring to and what needs to be done with respect to them?

DANIN: Well, I was referring to the full panoply of institutions that constitute a state -- everything from a thriving judiciary, the rule of law, finance ministry, sort of the kind of -- all the elements of statehood.

This is something that actually is taking place. It's something that president -- rather, Prime Minister Fayyad is pursuing with vigor. Creating a state so that when the time comes that the negotiations actually reach some sort of fruition, the Palestinians are in place to start to take real control over their -- over their lives.

This is -- again, the state-building enterprise is something that has been moving forward, but what I was suggesting is that it needs to be testified and broadened and that greater support needs to be provided to it, because what that will do is it will provide the Palestinians a sense that indeed, they are on the road to real statehood. And one of the concerns for the Palestinian people today is that this process is not actually going to lead anywhere. There's a great deal of cynicism about that. So the state-building process helps infuse them with some sense of hope, which then frees up thenegotiators to actually have more space to negotiate, because they have public support for what they're doing.

QUESTIONER: I was wondering what, in fact, has been done with respect to the judiciary and the rule of law, which were the first two items that you mentioned, particularly since there haven't been elections and there are no prospects for elections in the future. They've been canceled or deferred.

So what -- we're in the -- we're now approaching the second year of Prime Minister Fayyad's two-year program to build a state institution and I'm just wondering what, in fact, has been done so far.

DANIN: Well, you do have a massive expansion of the infrastructure of the rule of law. Providing security and law and order entails everything from, at the onset, the ability to arrest and incarcerate people, but then have a process for dealing with those people once you've done -- incarcerated them.

That's been the Achilles heel in the Palestinian institutions. While they've had the ability -- greater ability to arrest people, the question is what do you do with them? So there been a number -- dozens of courthouses built with facilities for holding detainees, judges have been appointed, the whole infrastructure for administering justice has expanded.

There's more that needs to be done on that front, but there now is a greater procedure in place for actually ensuring that someone who's arrested gets a legitimate hearing and then is either released on the merits or taken to trial.

So that's one element that has been expanded more, much more needs to be done here. But this has not been dependent on new legislative elections, for example.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Hoda Tawfik with Al-Ahram Egypt.

QUESTIONER: Mr. Secretary, I'm going to ask you about -- you said that President Obama will use his capital later, but already he use his capital for more than a year. What makes it possible now that his capital will work?

And in this gamble, in the end, whom do you think will be the loser?

DANIN: Well, first of all, on the issue of expending capital, I mean, it's a relative term, not an absolute term. I mean, I agree with you.

The president has put his own prestige on the line both by, at the very beginning of the administration, identifying this issue as atop priority; by continuing to engage by hosting the two leaders at the U.N. last September; by now calling this summit. He definitely is expending capital, but he would be expending even more capital if he were to make himself the key negotiator if he were to be leading the process at this point. And instead, what he's done is appointed his secretary of State to do so. So what I was suggesting is that still, he's keeping some capital in reserve for later on.

In respect to the question of who would be the loser if this process -- by that I imagine you mean who'll be the loser if this process does not succeed? Well, I think all three parties would be the losers for that and the peoples of the Middle East would be the losers.

But clearly, President Obama will expend political capital and it will not enhance his statute if he does not succeed. Yet, at the same time, I think the administration calculates that it will get some international recognition of the efforts made. And so there is an appreciation in the world for making the effort.

I think President Abbas is particularly concerned that a process that is open-ended and leads nowhere will hurt him quite badly -- particularly given that there are so many opponents within the Palestinian politics to this. I mean, there are, roughly speaking, two camps in Palestinian politics about how you move forward and achieve your Palestinian national objectives.

You have those who've long argued that it's through resistance, armed struggle, violence, terror that you get the Israelis to make concessions. President Abbas has been advocating a different approach, which argues that it's through negotiations.

If these negotiations do not succeed, that argument is weakened and thereby it strengthens those who advocate a different approach. But yet, if that were to be the result, then both Israelis and Palestinians would be the loser for it.

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much.

DANIN: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Eli Lake with The Washington Times.

QUESTIONER: Thanks a lot.

I wanted to get your thoughts on what a lot of Israeli officials have told me in recent days. There's a kind of diplomatic minefield, from their perspective, on de-legitimating issues. So it's a two-part question. I mean, there is the Goldstone follow-on report to the Human Rights Council, not to mention the flotilla report -- another flotilla. Turkey is the chair of the U.N. Security Council. How does the direct negotiations and peace process affect that issue, in your estimation, from Israel's (which I guess doesn't ?) mitigate it? And can these sorts of pressures have a deleterious affect on the peace process?

DANIN: Right. Well, yes. It can. I mean, I think there's an Israeli that says on the one hand view, the Palestinians are asking us to make concessions and you're -- we're trying to create a good faith environment here.

And so therefore, what they call law fair -- the Israelis -- that is, taking the Israelis to task in various international fora, be it the Human Rights Council or the United Nations Security Council or the General Assembly for various incidents, be it the flotilla affair, for conduct of Operation Cast Lead. These are not confidence-building steps goes the argument.

You know, the Palestinian argument, the counter argument is look, we are the weaker ones on the ground. We are going to use whatever peaceful means we have at our disposal to challenge Israel and try to advance our interests.

I mean, the real question is, is it productive or counterproductive? I believe that one of the things that's very important in this process is for there to be a sense of confidence that -- in each side that overcomes the skepticism the peoples have about the other. And so clearly, these sorts of steps do not engender that confidence.

And so, it's very easy for it to be -- for these steps to be even if you consider them legitimate counterproductive.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Elizabeth Pond, freelance journalist.

QUESTIONER: Hello. I wonder if you could say what your reasons are for optimism? That's the first question. The second question is what are the positions of the two sides on previous almost agreements? Are they starting from zero or are they starting from a foundation that's already been laid in earlier negotiations even though they didn't finally succeed?

DANIN: Well let me answer your second question first. They don't agree on this point. And indeed, that was one of the issues that hampered the efforts to get back to the negotiating table. Essentially, the Palestinian argument was we should resume the negotiations where they last left off with -- under Prime Minister Olmert. Prime Minister Netanyahu came to power and said, look, there had been a proposal made by Israel. The Palestinians did not agree to it, so it has no official standing. And that was the previous government's proposal, and I don't endorse it.

And so that's one of the -- that was a law -- a sticking point that had to be managed over time. So the two sides do not agree about the relevance of the previous agreements -- or previous proposals or what you called near agreements.

In this context, close is not close enough. It is an all-or- nothing thing. Nonetheless, what those near agreements -- be it the Clinton parameters, be it the proposals made by Prime Minister Olmert -- they do provide negotiators some ideas at least for possible ways forward. But they have no binding stature for future negotiators.

You asked for reasons for hope or optimism. I mean, I think that one of the -- there are a number of them. I mean, first of all, the Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating for some time. So they know what the issues are, they know what the possible solutions are. There are not an infinite amount of possibilities here.

Many of the taboos that once hampered negotiators have been broken. There was a time that it was illegal in Israel to talk to the PLO. There was a time that Palestinians refused to use the word Israel. We're long past that point.We're now at -- we've now identified some of the core issues. And there is a consensus around the idea that the solution should be a two-state solution based on the creation of a state of Palestine, living peacefully in -- with a secure Israel in peace and security.

So there is a rough outline and goal that the two sides, as well as the international community have rallied around. So some of the work has been done. Some of the conditioning has been done in terms of the publics. I've just returned from spending about two and a half years on the ground there. And I -- my -- I came back very much with the strong feeling that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians do want a settlement and are tired of the -- tired of the conflict and are willing to pay the price, that's -- the price that's necessary and make the concessions that are necessary.

That said, there is a great deal of mistrust. In fact, there's a deep mistrust of the other side that exists, that I think plays a major role in allowing the process to move forward. Israelis fear that they will be asked to make concessions that will leave them in a situation with worse security, not better security. Palestinians fear that they will wind up in a situation where they will give away their nationalist aspirations and their calls for justice yet will leave them without the Israeli occupation having been lifted.

So there has to be a way found in this process to instill hope and confidence in the leaders and in the peoples. They also have -- their experience to date in this process has made them very jaded. And so, they look at ceremonies at the White House with a great deal of skepticism. But I don't think that that skepticism need be -- is necessarily justified. It's understandable, but it isn't necessarily -- necessarily have to be an inhibitor.

And that's why I think third parties can play a role to say look, actually this isn't as difficult as you think it is. Yes, it is difficult, but it's not intractable, it's not impossible. It is possible, but it's going to be difficult. So you need to invest in this.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Sean Flax with NHK.

QUESTIONER: Hello. I'm just wondering based on Abbas's letter about settlement freezing and the fact that there haven't been any public announcements about further talks beyond Friday. Is there a possibility or a concern that there won't be any beyond Friday -- that everything could fall apart?

DANIN: It's a distinct possibility that the process could be stillborn, and that the settlement issue could be a cause for the talks to go no further than the first round of talks on the 1st of September. That said, it will be difficult for both parties to do that. I think that both parties are -- do not feel the sense of urgency for this process.But yet at the same time, they ultimately came to an agreement because President Obama wanted them to. And neither side wanted to be blamed for standing in the way of this process moving forward. And if that's the case, then clearly once the process starts neither side is going to want to be held responsible for the process breaking down.

And that will play a role in keeping them at the table. It may not be sufficient to reach an agreement, but I think it will play a very big role in making both sides very reluctant from walking away from the negotiations, knowing that they will in doing so bring about the displeasure of the United States and President Obama.

GWERTZMAN: Could I just interject a question here. This is Bernie Gwertzman again. How important is success in these talks to the Obama administration's overall foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East?

DANIN: Well, again, I think that having identified this as a national security priority, it's very important to the administration. They've identified it and defined it themselves as important. So therefore, it is.

I don't -- you know, there is a long-standing debate about what -- whether or not peace between Israel and Palestinians is necessary for progress to be made in other theaters. I think that -- my own view is that that's an overstated -- that's overstated. The administration feels that progress helps. And there, you know, clearly if the parties are talking and the voices of moderation and peaceful reconciliation are on the ascendancy and are making progress, that helps moderate voices in the region.

But we should have no illusions. There are people who are opposed to this process, and they are going to challenge this process. And if they think that it's actually making serious progress, then they will intensify their efforts. And so, you know, this will not be without cost, and it's likely that there will be those who challenge it through violence.

That would be a major challenge for the -- for this process. But I think the administration calculates that just expending political capital and making this a priority does help its standing internationally. But ultimately, it will be judged on -- by whether or not it's able to deliver or not. And so, here success is very important, and has a knock-on effect if only that having invested a great deal of capital in this process, if it does not succeed, then it will -- it will look like a -- you know, a setback for the administration. And that's one of the inherent risks that the administration has taken.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: At this time, we have no further audio questions.MR. QWERTZMAN: Okay, I'm willing to wrap it up. Thank you, Robert.

DANIN: Okay, well thank you. I'm glad I answered everyone's questions, and assuaged all concerns.

GWERTZMAN: Good, cheers, take care.

DANIN: Okay, thank you.







More on This Topic