While the build up to the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – the first direct talks in almost ten years to be brokered by the United States – was largely greeted with an excess of pessimism on the part of many observers, the fact that they have been resumed is, on its own, something of an achievement for US President Barack Obama and his administration. Indeed, it took almost a year of intensive diplomacy in order to get to these direct negotiations to get them going.
Both Israelis and Palestinians expressed satisfaction with the first round of talks in Washington, and the mood of the Palestinian delegation in particular seemed to be considerably improved when they left. Following the second round of negotiations in Egypt, US officials including Obama, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell all made upbeat comments.
Leading up to the talks, attention both in the Middle East and in the West generally focused on the obvious obstacles to achieving agreement: politically weak leadership on both sides, powerful domestic opposition, total lack of trust between the parties, the unresolved issue of settlement expansion and, most significantly, seemingly unbridgeable differences on key final-status issues, including borders, refugees’ right of return, Jerusalem and security. In particular, the question of Jerusalem remains a huge sticking point. Several key members of the Israeli cabinet insist that control of Jerusalem is not up for negotiation, while the Palestinians cannot consider any agreement that does not provide them with a capital in East Jerusalem.
All of these issues will be very difficult to overcome, but it is surely premature – and counterproductive – to dismiss the negotiations as pointless or doomed to fail simply because reaching an agreement will be painful and complicated.
In many cases, the pessimism has been a consequence of focusing solely on obstacles, rather than potential incentives for an agreement for both parties. In other cases, it reflected not so much pessimism about, but rather opposition to, a negotiated agreement based on serious compromises. These include both short-term compromises by Israel on issues such as territorial control by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and increased security measures by the Palestinians, as well as long-term compromises required of Israel on Jerusalem and the Palestinians on the right of return for refugees.
Similarly, undue optimism has also taken hold in some quarters as the talks continue, in spite of the lack of any concrete achievement thus far. The impressive political spectacle engineered by the White House moved some noted sceptics, including the veteran American negotiator Aaron David Miller, to attenuate their resounding “no’s” into muted “maybe’s” about whether the peace process can work. The US administration’s unrelenting persistence on the issue, coupled with the presence of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders insisting that an agreement is possible, seems to have at least temporarily won over some cynics.
Moreover, there is evidence of the effectiveness of American influence on the parties, if not their enthusiasm for negotiating with each other: the Israelis did not allow the murder of four settlers near Hebron by Hamas on the eve of the talks to prompt a pullout, and the Palestinians did not invoke either the flotilla attack in May or the ongoing settlement controversy to prevent their attendance.
That the talks are even continuing in the face of such serious difficulties is a testament to the will of the negotiators, the influence of the United States and the deep reluctance of Israel and the Palestinians to be blamed for any failure. Neither optimists nor pessimists will find anything that has happened in the negotiations thus far to seriously challenge any of their assumptions. But pessimists should bear in mind that if we are ever to have successful negotiations leading to a peace agreement, they are inevitably going to begin as modestly as this.