ALMOST NO ONE IN THE MIDDLE EAST HAS ANY confidence that proximity talks will lead to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In my view, however, if conducted with the full weight of the office of the president of the United States behind them, including a readiness to make full use of the diplomatic tool box, these talks do have some chance of success.
Actually, there are advantages to proximity talks. Let’s face it, so far direct talks have failed and there is no reason to believe that a new round would end any differently. For very good reasons, Israelis and Palestinians deeply distrust each other. Direct negotiations at this time would not be constructive and could quickly break down. On the other hand, the big plus of proximity talks is that the mediator “owns the message.” He can frame and interpret it in a way that moves the process forward.
The mediator also “owns” the text. He can work with a single text that he pens, not the parties. Direct exchange of texts between the parties is not necessary. Back in 1978 at Camp David I, prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat worked in this way with the US team drafting the text. US president Jimmy Carter maneuvered through the maze of Israeli-Egyptian negotiations by owning the message and owning the text.
If the current US mediator George Mitchell asks the Israelis and Palestinians to submit drafts of agreements, he will weaken his own hand, transferring a greater degree of control to the party which tables the draft (usually the Israeli side, which already enjoys an asymmetrical amount of power).
The whole process will be put to the test in the coming weeks.
Rhetorical escalation by various Israeli politicians on the continuation of building in all parts of Jerusalem could scuttle the talks before they get off the ground. Such rhetoric has already led to Palestinian statements that the talks will cease if a single new house is built.
In a recent conversation I had with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Fayyad, I asked him: What is the single most important action that could assist you in fulfilling your plan for preparing for statehood? He responded immediately: Stop the nightly IDF incursions into Palestinian areas and allow me to deploy my security forces in all areas where Palestinians live in the West Bank, including in areas “B” and “C,” as was the case prior to the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000.
Similarly, I asked a friend in the Foreign Ministry what Israel wants Fayyad to do now. The response was to take more direct action against anti-Israel incitement. So here is a promising initial quid pro quo: More land to full Palestinian control in exchange for an end to anti-Israel incitement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mantra over the years visa- vis the Palestinians has been “reciprocity.” Although the clear asymmetry in relations and in assets most definitely creates a problem for what the Palestinians can give in exchange for real Israeli assets, there are some reciprocal exchanges that can be made to get the new process going, of which the above suggestion is one.
One of the main reasons for the failure of the Oslo process was because Israel depended on the Palestinians to provide security for Israelis and when they failed at that, Israel refused to withdraw from territories that were promised to the Palestinians in the agreements.
Prime Minister Fayyad changed the paradigm and now speaks about providing security for Palestinians and, in doing so, creating a secure enough environment for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories. The new Palestinian security forces have been more successful at this than anyone expected.
Now it’s time to allow the Palestinian Authority to assert its control over more areas without IDF incursions. If Israeli intelligence claims there are terrorists working in the PA controlled area, the Palestinian security forces have proven themselves quite capable of confronting the threat with full coordination at the field level.
It’s time for positive movement on the ground to be matched with appropriate rhetoric and positive negotiations. At the end of the day, this is all possible, but only with a strong, determined and fully equipped US diplomatic effort, backed by the power and the prestige of the president. Once the process gets moving, US President Barack Obama should come to the Knesset and address the Israeli people directly, with a clear US vision of peace, including detailed parameters of an agreement, together with strong US security assurances for Israel. This would surely help in creating a more positive environment for peace and for once bring us all a little bit of hope.
Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org) and an elected member of the leadership of Israel’s Green Movement political party.