News / Middle East

Former US Officials Assess Mideast Peace Prospects

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The United States and Jordan have recently pledged to cooperate in an effort to revive the Middle East peace process.

Negotiations for a lasting peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for more than a year.

Like many diplomats, John Bolton, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, takes a dim view of Mideast peace prospects.

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in New York (2011 file photo)
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in New York (2011 file photo)

“Well I think it’s in the ditch and I don’t know what’s going to get it out anytime soon,” Bolton said.

The key issues facing both sides are the geographic outlines of a new Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees and the construction of new Jewish settlements in occupied territories.

Peace talks ground to a halt in September 2010 when Israel resumed the construction of settlements after a moratorium expired. Palestinian officials say they will not resume talks until settlement building is stopped. Israel refuses to freeze settlements and is calling for talks without preconditions.

Jordan’s King Abdullah has hosted low-level discussions between Israelis and Palestinians in an effort to get full negotiations under way. Following a meeting where he briefed U.S. President Barack Obama on the talks [Jan. 17th], the king said these talks are in the very early stages.

But former Secretary of Defense William Cohen says time is running out for an agreement.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Sebastian Cohen (2008 file photo)
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Sebastian Cohen (2008 file photo)

“I don’t think time is on anyone’s side on this. I think the Israelis need to have an agreement with the Palestinians," he said.  I think the Palestinians should do whatever they can to have a united front as such and one that recognizes Israel’s right to security."

"And I think Israel has to recognize the Palestinians have a right to sovereignty, dignity, economic opportunity," Cohen added. "And those goals aren’t going to be diminished over time - they are going to increase in terms of the numbers of people and the demand to share in a future filled with prosperity. So at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any movement at all.”

Experts say one stumbling block to the peace process is the division in Palestinian leadership between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The West Bank is run by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority while the Gaza Strip is under the control of the militant organization Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department.

Former Ambassador Bolton says that Palestinian split makes it difficult for leadership to emerge.

“The biggest problem, at this point, is that there is not a sufficiently strong interlocutor on the Palestinian side who can make the very hard political decisions that they would have to make and then carry through on some of these difficult commitments," he said. "The Israelis will have to do the same thing, but they have a functioning government. The Palestinians, unfortunately, don’t have that. And it doesn’t seem to be a situation that’s improving.”

Many experts, including former National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft, say Israel and the Palestinians cannot reach an agreement by themselves.

Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft on Capitol Hill in Washington (2007 File photo)
Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft on Capitol Hill in Washington (2007 File photo)

“It has been amply showed since 1948 [creation of Israel], the two sides are never going to be so evenly balanced that they can come to a solution by themselves," Scowcroft said. "There are so many internal dissident movements inside both Israel and the Palestinian side that it would take a firm position by the United States and Europe to resolve it. A two-state solution is in the interest of both parties, but it’s just too hard for them, domestically, to do by themselves.”

Bolton repeats a statement made by former Secretary of State James Baker, though, that peace depends on the participants.

“The United States can’t want peace more than the parties themselves,” Bolton said.

Looking ahead, neither Scowcroft, Bolton nor Cohen believes there will be any significant progress this year in the Middle East peace process because it is a presidential election year in the United States and both sides want to see what Washington will have to offer next.

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