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August 20, 2010
The hidden jokers in the direct-talks deck
At first blush, it may seem that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a straightforward account of plans for resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Washington, DC, next month -- with President Obama presiding at the kickoff.
But there are several wrinkles in this next step in Mideast diplomacy that are worth examining more closely:
For starters, Clinton put a one-year target date/deadline for the talks to resolve all outstanding final-status issues. These include Jerusalem, refugees, security and borders. Good luck! It ain't going to happen. So why announce with great fanfare that it can happen -- and within the next 12 months? Why not take a bit more time and set a two-year, 2012 deadline for total agreement, as has been bruited about for some time?
Simple: Since the odds are 99.9 percent -- and that's a conservative estimate -- that these talks won't produce a final, durable peace agreement, the worst scenario for Obama's reelection prospects is that they would blow up in two years time, in September, 2012 when the next presidential election campaign swings into high gear. Imagine how Obama's prospects for a second term would fare if his most ambitious diplomatic initiative backfires in the midst of his reelection campaign.
Thus, better that they fail next year -- in a non-election year.
Second, even before direct talks start, the re-launch already comes with some murky and contradictory language that can -- and will -- leave each side free to parse it to advance its own interests, however much at variance with the interests of the other side.
Clinton's invitation to the parties to join Obama for direct talks next month is bereft of pre-conditions -- a victory for Israel and a rejection of Mahmoud Abbas's insistence on specific pre-conditions, starting with a total, indefinite freeze of all Jewish settlement activities in the West Bank and a similar freeze in East Jerusalem.
But the White House and the State Department carefully synchronized their announcement with a companion statement issued by the Quartet of international negotiators (the U.S., the EU, Russia and the UN) that tilts more in favor of Abbas. In that statement -- and remember Obama and Clinton signed off on that -- the Quartet stressed its "complete commitment" to earlier communiqués that called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity and to end "provocative actions" in East Jerusalem, including demolition of illegally built Arab homes in the eastern sector of its undivided capital.
Chalk that one up as a victory of sorts for Abbas, at a minimum a fig leaf to allow him to assert that the Great Powers have, in fact, added important Palestinian pre-conditions to the re-launch of direct talks. In the short term, this will make it more difficult for Prime Minister Netanyahu to carry out his pledge that a short-term freeze of construction in West Bank settlements will end as planned -- i.e. later next month -- and will not be renewed. The Quartet wants it renewed and that includes Obama.
So the president, as is his wont, wants it both ways. He tilts toward Bibi with the Clinton invitation and tilts toward Abbas with the Quartet invitation.
Finally, there's the roster of invited guests for September's Mideast summit at the White House, which will include the leaders of Jordan and Egypt at the same photo-op as Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas. But conspicuously missing from this photo-shoot will be the leader of Gaza, who rules over half of a promised Palestinian state -- Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh. There are obvious and perfectly valid reasons for not sending him an invitation, starting with the fact that a Hamas presence at the summit would rule out participation by Abbas. Nevertheless, Haniyeh's absence is bound to underscore one of the principal reasons why these talks will go nowhere.
Because how do you conclude a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians with Hamas, a terrorist group sworn to Israel's destruction, in firm control of Gaza?
So roll out the red carpets, rev up the cameras and pretend with straight faces that an important step has been taken to move the peace process forward.