The resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in early September offers significant opportunities and pitfalls for all parties.
For the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement of the talks represents the culmination of almost a year of intensive diplomacy. Whether or not the United States has a backup plan if talks founder is entirely unclear. The administration’s assumption appears to be that direct talks will generate their own dynamics; but if they don’t, it’s not evident what the next American step will be.
Nonetheless, the administration deserves credit for having revived diplomacy, which was interrupted for several years, under inauspicious circumstances. In a rare, extremely significant joint display of support for these efforts, the American Task Force on Palestine issued a statement welcoming negotiations in conjunction with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group that represents a range of mainstream Jewish-American organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, among others. The statement endorsed a two-state solution and urged the parties to show courage, flexibility and persistence.
Crucially, Clinton indicated that the United States was pursuing a multi-track policy. She stressed the need to “to help Palestinians build the institutions of their future state, an effort which must continue during the negotiations.” Washington has understood that diplomacy must be augmented with state-building in the West Bank, for political and strategic reasons, and that this is not merely an economic development project, but also an indispensable component in the quest to end the conflict.
It is also a sign of American recognition of a point Palestinians have been implicitly making for a year now: that early progress in top-level diplomacy is unlikely given the political weaknesses of leaderships on both sides and the enormous differences between them on aspects of a final-status agreement, especially the future of Jerusalem. Therefore, constructing the framework of a Palestinian state at this juncture might be as significant, if not actually more so, than what can be achieved at the bargaining table, at least initially.
For the Palestinians, the Quartet statement was essential to making the return to negotiations politically palatable. In particular, the Quartet’s reference to a one-year timeline recognizes Palestinian concerns that talks should not be open-ended. The statement affirms that talks “can” be concluded within a year, but not that they “should” or “must” be. It is an aspirational sentiment rather than a set deadline, but acknowledges legitimate Palestinian concerns.
Palestinians have received other assurances and guarantees both verbally and in writing, but these have not been made public. However, it does not appear that they have yet secured an effective enforcement mechanism that can hold the parties accountable for fulfilling their commitments. This has been an important Palestinian position, and will undoubtedly be a prerequisite for success as talks continue. It is probably the single most important role the US can play at this stage, but implementing it will mean overcoming significant Israeli resistance.
As for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the achievement of direct talks without any public preconditions – notwithstanding the obvious private commitments that have been made to Washington on a number of issues, including settlements – represents both an important victory and, potentially, a very dangerous development.
Until now, Netanyahu has been generally able to triangulate between the demands of his right-wing coalition partners and Washington’s expectations based on American national interests. If the Palestinians play their cards right, such maneuvering should become more difficult to sustain, and it would appear that the PLO position on final-status conditions is much closer to the American one than is the Israeli position. This is a new and unusual development, although it does not undermine the special relationship between Israel and the United States.
There is a consensus in Washington that it is essential, not optional, for the US to help achieve an end to the conflict, therefore to also end the Israeli occupation. This potentially provides the Palestinians with crucial leverage over Israel. However, to take advantage of this, the Palestinians must convince the Americans that they are strategic and political partners, willing to take politically costly decisions in the interests of reaching common objectives.
While major progress at the early stages of negotiation is extremely unlikely, so is a spectacular meltdown, as neither party wants to be perceived as having sabotaged the negotiations. The ability to assign blame for failure is probably the single biggest card that the US possesses, though it will be highly reluctant to use it, especially against Israel. However, it should be enough to keep the balls in the air for now, allowing state-building in the West Bank to steadily improve the strategic landscape in which negotiations take place, while also laying the groundwork for a successful peace agreement.