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Can Israeli-Palestinian Talks Succeed?

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

FILE - Israeli parliament employees set up a Palestinian and Israeli flag ahead of a meeting between Israeli parliament members and a delegation of Palestinian politicians and businessmen aimed at encouraging Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, July 31, 2013.

FILE - Israeli parliament employees set up a Palestinian and Israeli flag ahead of a meeting between Israeli parliament members and a delegation of Palestinian politicians and businessmen aimed at encouraging Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, July 31, 2013.

A new public opinion poll indicates pessimism is growing among both Israelis and Palestinians about the status of peace negotiations and the long-term prospects for an agreement. Negotiations resumed this summer following mediation by the United States.

Shibley Telhami, professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland, who conducted the survey believes that pessimism on both sides is a real barrier to making progress.

“Only four percent of Israelis and 11 percent of Palestinians think the American mediation effort will succeed,” Telhami said. “When you start with such pessimism, it is very hard to get the two sides to compromise.”

Telhami said that a small majority on both sides supported a “package deal,” a proposal along the lines of what experts expect a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian accord to look like.

“Looking at these results, it seems that one of the few things that Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is that peace is not on their horizon,” Telhami said. “A majority of both Israelis and Palestinians are pessimistic about both the current round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and long-term peace prospects.”

In July, the Obama administration launched an ambitious effort to restart talks aimed at trying to resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two sides only agreed to enter a nine-month period of talks, under U.S. sponsorship, after heavy American pressure. They have since held a series of quiet meetings which yieded no tangible results, yet plenty of finger-pointing.

The Palestinians accuse Israel of negotiating in bad faith by continuing to build settlements in areas they hope will become part of a future Palestinian state. Israel counters by saying that the Palestinians are hindering peace because they continue to refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

U.S. cautiously optimistic

The Obama administration acknowledges that the process is difficult and will take time.

In his remarks Saturday to an annual forum of top Israeli and U.S. policymakers and experts convened by the Brookings Institution' Saban Center for Middle East Policy, President Barack Obama lowered expectations for the outcome of renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

“I think it is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail," he said.

The U.S. president said that the onus rests on both sides.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli military and intelligence folks have to make that determination,” he said. “And ultimately, the Palestinians have to also recognize that there is going to be a transition period. But it’s going to require some very tough decisions.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the same group, said Israeli security was a focus of the recent talks.

“We are examining every potential security scenario, something on the border, something in the future, terrorism in the future, a weakness in the Hashemite Kingdom, whatever it might be,” he said.

Kerry anticipated a similar U.S. effort for Palestinian security.

“We anticipate that the United States will continue to play a leading role in building – helping to build Palestinian capacity, helping to build their capabilities to maintain law and order; to cooperate in an effective judicial system; to counter terrorism and smuggling; and manage border security, customs, immigration,” he said.

A different U.S. role

Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Saban Center, insisted that the U.S. should play a more active role if a peace deal is to be reached.

“Everyone knows there is an enormous power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, and unless this imbalance is addressed through some form of U.S. pressure, the Israelis can afford to ignore the main concerns of the Palestinians such as the settlement expansion,” Elgindy said.

Telhami, who is also a fellow at the Saban Center, agreed that it would be impossible for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate every term of each issue on their own.

“Only a package comprehensive deal has a shot; where there are tradeoffs with a potential to end the conflict and that package can only come from the U.S.,” he said.

Elgindy argues that this put the U.S. into the role of a true mediator, instead of just facilitator.

“There is no way this long conflict would be resolved without the U.S. putting a peace proposal on the table and pressure both sides to compromise,” he said.

Saban Center director Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, stressed timing was of the essence for the U.S. role to be useful.

“Secretary Kerry would have to judge when the moment is right for the U.S. to make its own package of peace proposals,” she said.
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