The Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas summit was a disappointment mainly because of the (perhaps not reasonably) high expectations that much of the world has held for the new US Administration (including me).
It appears (at least until now) that the nature of the policy of the Obama administration will not be a radical shift from what we had seen until now. The emphasis will be on direct bilateral negotiations. The assumption is that Senator Mitchell will be at the table, although that has not been stated explicitly. This assumption is drawn from Mitchell’s role in the Northern Ireland process.
The US’s emphasis in the negotiations will be to complete a permanent status Israeli-Palestinian agreement on all outstanding issues. There is no indication, until now, that a time table is being set for those negotiations, although President Obama and Senator Mitchell have both indicated that they will not be open-ended.
Both President Obama and Senator Mitchell indicated that the renewed peace process would be comprehensive and would seek to bring about agreements between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon as well as encouraging Arab states to take confidence building steps towards greater normalization with Israel.
President Obama has indicated a sense of urgency and determination, but this has been expressed only in the tone of his voice and not in any explicit “tools” that will be used by the US to push the parties to make important and difficult decisions.
The terminology used to describe Israeli obligations has been changed by President Obama from “a total freeze on settlement building” to “refraining from settlement building”. Furthermore, what was seen as a pre-condition for negotiations is now being termed (by Mitchell) as a factor that will contribute to the success of the negotiations. Likewise, it is interesting to note that President Obama spoke about mutual recognition of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people (he did not mention the Jewish people or State or the State of the Jewish people).
The President and Senator Mitchell refrained from setting a date for renewing negotiations. It is yet to be determined if President Abbas will authorize the launching of negotiations without a settlement freeze. President Obama announced that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would meet next week in Washington and that Senator Mitchell is immediately coming back to the region. Saeb Arikat, the Chief Palestinian negotiator was quoted this morning as saying that the negotiations would not be renewed until Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to a withdrawal to the June 4 1967 borders. (Is this a new pre-condition for negotiations?)
What is completely lacking from the process, based on what we know, is a time line for negotiations, the link between a time line and performance, mechanisms for monitoring and reporting on implementation, the role of the mediator at the table, a commitment to third party presence on the ground to supervise Israeli withdrawals and security guarantees for both sides, the role of the other quartet partners (the EU, Russia and the UN), and what happens when and if the process stalls or fails to reach agreements.
What is necessary is for the US to prepare a “diplomatic tool box” of very big “carrots and sticks” and to let the parties know how and when those tools will be used. There has to be a price tag to the process – both for success and for failure, stalling and spoiling the process. The chances of success without the above elements that are missing now from the process (or at least from public knowledge) are very small. The chances of success even with the above might be small as well, but with them the chances are increased.
In my assessment, the current government of Israel will be incapable of making any substantive decisions that are fundamental to making peace with any of Israel’s neighbors (with which there is no peace). What that means is that if President Obama is really sincere about his determination to end the conflict in two years, a real peace process will either bring about a fall of the current ruling Israeli coalition – meaning new elections, or that the nature of the current government would have to change (Kadima to join, and the rejectionists to leave).
Both sides will face the huge challenge of generating public support for making hard decisions. The Israeli public has already bought the notion that Palestinian economic development, even more freedom of movement and access, is an Israeli interest. At the same time, the Israeli Government is working overtime to sell to the public that freezing settlement building weakens Israel’s hand in the negotiations. Palestinians will have to do work with their public mainly on the consequences of peace regarding the non-implementation of the right of return. Both sides need to get out of the “zero-sum” mode of expression that what is good for other side has to be bad for me.
In summation, the US must sharpen and define its “diplomatic-negotiating tool-box” and let both sides know the consequences of failure – at least in terms of the United States’ relations with them. Peace must pay and failure to make peace must have a price tag.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.