Why Obama Wants Direct Talks Now
And why Bibi is in the catbird seat
Boy oh boy does the Obama administration want direct talks! Currently, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas are engaged in fairly stagnant, U.S.-mediated “proximity talks.” Netanyahu has been lobbying for a move to direct talks for about a month now, and ever since visiting the White House a few weeks ago, the administration has slowly—and now all of a sudden quite forcefully—come around to his side. “A full court press [is] underway to see if we can move to direct negotiations,” confirmed a State Department spokesperson. The administration has asked Egypt to back them, and has privately warned Abbas that the future of a Palestinian state depends on his acceding to them. And, Politico’s Laura Rozen reports, even Secretary of State Clinton, who has a wedding to plan, had been “burning up the phone lines” to try to secure all-important Arab League backing.
Meanwhile, last week Netanyahu visited ailing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and this week he stopped by Amman to chat with Jordanian King Abdullah II, with whom his relations had been frigid, in order to build up support for direct talks.
And, lo and behold, in a clear diplomatic victory for Bibi, the Arab League endorsed the talks yesterday. Which means the pressure is now on Abbas, who doesn’t want direct talks until the proximity talks deliver written assurances considering borders and security. Why does Netanyahu think direct talks are good for Israel and Abbas think they are bad for the Palestinians? And why does Obama think they are good for everybody?
Aaron David Miller, an extremely knowledgeable and center-left observer (Lee Smith profiled him for Tablet Magazine) points out that, historically, direct talks have almost never produced peace: “Every successful agreement that has endured—save one—came not as a result of sustained direct talks but from heavy-duty U.S. mediation,” he argues (the exception is the generally anomalous Israeli-Jordanian peace of 1994). If Netanyahu is aware of this—and presumably he is—then why does he want direct talks? Says Miller:
Israel’s interest in direct negotiations is perhaps understandable. As the stronger party, the Israelis would like to edge the Americans out and try to deal directly with the Palestinians without a babysitter. Whether or not the Netanyahu government is prepared to deal seriously with the Palestinians, this has always been the preferred Israeli approach.
A more cynical take might be: The lack of a babysitter plus direct talks means Israel can plausibly claim to be working toward a two-state solution even as its settlement freeze ends, as scheduled, in September. This cynical take might also help explain Abbas’s reluctance to agree to these talks without assurances, whether in terms of an extension of the freeze or security or border guarantees.
Hussein Ibish, also a knowledgeable (and also slightly left-wing) observer spells out the Palestinians’ predicament. On the one hand, “Anyone who gets positioned as the primary obstructionist in Middle East diplomacy is in a dreadfully unenviable position … So saying no incurs an extremely heavy price diplomatically and internationally and it’s something any sensible Palestinian would be deeply loath to do.” On the other hand, Abbas has secured nothing, and so, from a domestic perspective—where Hamas, already in power in Gaza, threatens to gain power in the West Bank too at the first sign of the leadership’s weakness—“the PLO simply doesn’t have anything it can point to politically to justify to the Palestinian people why it would feel that the proximity talks and diplomatic process in recent months produced any results or conditions that would justify upgrading to direct negotiations.”
(In an interesting twist, Israeli President Shimon Peres is rumored to be secretly trying to dissuade the Palestinians from agreeing to direct talks, on the grounds that they would just be a waste of time.)
And as for Obama—what does he gain from direct talks? In theory, peace: As Ibish points out, “outside of the context of direct negotiations, in which all parties will be forced to really put their cards on the table, Netanyahu can continue to obfuscate, postpone, dither and focus on procedural and minor matters.”
But just because Netanyahu is guaranteed the ability to keep moving the goalposts back as long as there are no direct talks doesn’t mean he can’t do it if there are direct talks. And anyway, while direct talks will hasten peace if the two sides can agree to a compromise, it is nonetheless merely a structural means for achieving a substantive ends—which still could prove elusive. As Miller puts it, “The only conceivable purpose of direct talks now would be to provide clarity. And clarity when you can’t reach a deal is not always a good thing.”
One thing is clear: Score one for Bibi. Between Obama’s Cairo speech and the Biden debacle and the flotilla and the rest of it, he has spent the past year on the diplomatic ropes. And yet, all of a sudden, he is the one in the win-win position: He is calling for something that could more quickly achieve a Palestinian state; he has the backing not only of the Americans (which for a while seemed up in the air!) but even of the other Arab states; and he has put the more moderate Palestinians in a basically impossible position. Ibish sums up best where we stand now: “The ideal scenario for Netanyahu,” he argues, “is to continue to sit there and say that he wants immediate talks without any preconditions and that he is the one who is saying yes, while the Palestinians continue to say no, even if it is for understandable and justifiable reasons.”
Therefore, it is essential that the Palestinians find a way to say yes as soon as possible, and that the Obama administration and all parties that are serious about resolving the conflict find a means to help them do that. They need something to show for their efforts thus far, and it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Everyone interested in peace needs the Palestinians to say yes, and the PLO leadership clearly wants to, but they do have to be given a reason that can justify that decision to their own people.
Arab League Agrees in Principle to Direct Israeli-Palestinian Talks [AP/Haaretz]
Abbas Resisting Direct Talks With Israel, Despite Obama Pressure [Haaretz]
Clinton ‘Burning Up Phone Lines’ to Middle East [Laura Rozen]
Mr. President, Don’t Pray for Anything You Don’t Really Want [Foreign Policy]
The Palestinian Conundrum on Direct Negotiations [Ibishblog]
Related: Religion of Yes [Tablet Magazine]