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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Lack of Leadership Will Stall Israeli-Palestinian Direct Talks

Arezou Rezvani |
August 30, 2010 | 8:52 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

All the United States had to do to further complicate Israeli-Palestinian relations was to call for direct talks when leadership in both camps is wanting. In a move that has left analysts and scholars stunned, the U.S. announced on August 20 that direct talks between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas will resume September 2 after a near two-year hiatus. 

Abbas Meeting with President Obama (Creative Commons)
Abbas Meeting with President Obama (Creative Commons)
Unofficial preconditions from both sides, however, may very well derail the forthcoming talks before they even begin.  Palestinian calls to further extend the September 26 expiration of the settlement freeze before the direct talks commence have fallen on deaf ears; the U.S. and Israel have proposed that the settlement freeze be discussed during the talks.

If the United States truly has invested interest in achieving durable peace in the region, the negotiations must come at a time when leaders are “masters of their political constituencies, not prisoners of their political houses,” Aaron Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, told Neon Tommy. “If parties are prepared to own these negotiations and invest in them, then progress will be made. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe right now that they are ready,” added Miller. 

Whether they are preliminary direct talks or advanced stages of reconciliation, it is assumed that, at any negotiation table, engaged leaders are working with some unspoken degree of political confidence. President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu have failed to muster the kind of political clout necessary to engage in any meaningful form of direct talks in which substantial progress on any one issue can unfold. Both leaders are constrained by tremendously fractured national movements that will only worsen if these diplomatic measures fail to produce progress and restore trust on both sides.  

Mahmoud Abbas must appease Palestinian opposition movements including Hamas and the burgeoning fringe group Jund Ansar Allah, factions that are all too eager to capitalize on failure and legitimize their long-standing argument that diplomacy serves no purpose in their decades-long conflict with Israel.  Abbas will be entering the talks as the leader of a deeply divided national movement with distinct visions for the future of Palestine.

On the other side of the negotiating table, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is still trying to retrieve confidence after making what many still consider significant land concessions in 1997 which compromised his popularity and support, is in a comparable state of constraint.

The circumstances being far from ideal, it is vital that the initial stages of these direct talks focus exclusively on a single issue where gaps are narrowest— territory, arguably the least contentious matter that offers the greatest potential for headway.

Both leaders have expressed the desire to place security issues and the future of Jerusalem at the top of their priority list.  It will be up to the United States during these direct talks to dissuade leaders from pursuing resolutions on issues other than territory. The future of Jerusalem and the issues of security and refugees are matters that must be addressed only when some level of trust is restored on both sides. 

The U.S. must embark on this initiative with the smart, cruel and unforgiving understanding that a comprehensive conflict-ending agreement may not emerge until Israelis and Palestinians unite and produce the kind of leadership that can make tough decisions and consider painful concessions. To miscalculate and lose sight of where progress can be made initially during these talks is to sabotage the prospect for eventual peace.

The question that now looms before the international community is whether the U.S. administration can produce a sense of urgency and leadership that can compensate for the Palestinian and Israeli power voids. Early agreements between the two parties would certainly indicate U.S. strength in the region, which will become increasingly important as details of Iran’s suspected nuclear program emerge. As for leadership, after tackling some of the most divisive domestic issues in this country’s history, the Obama administration may have the necessary leverage to stabilize relations and set the stage for full-fledged negotiations. 


Contact Reporter Arezou Rezvani here; follow her on Twitter here.



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