Direct Palestinian-Israeli Negotiations: The Looming Risks of a Necessary Step

The commencement of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on September 2, announced on Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a small but necessary step for the Obama administration’s efforts to mediate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It has one advantage: unlike the early months of the Obama administration when expectations in the Middle East were high, few Arabs and Israelis are paying particular attention or betting on an agreement. Both Israelis and Palestinians have been there many times before and have been let down too frequently to start believing that this round will be different.

While Arabs and Israelis are both skeptical about the possibilities, the political outcome of the start of direct negotiations is dramatically different for the three parties. For the Obama administration, they finally have a structure in place that shifts the focus from process to substance and provides a context for the administration to present its own bridging ideas. For the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, it is something of a political win that will strengthen his coalition in the short-term, as he had insisted on the resumption of direct negotiations from the outset—although it is not yet clear what commitments he has made to the Obama administration.

For the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, the picture is far more complicated. He is on the one hand highly dependent on what the Obama administration will do and therefore is careful not to alienate the President of the United States whose support he will need as the focus shifts to final status issues. But the Palestinian public, as well as Arabs public outside the Palestinian areas see in his decision to start direct negotiations not an accomplishment but as yet another concession. This is in large part due to the fact that over the past year, faced with several crises—over the Goldstone Report, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Flotilla tragedy—the Palestinians have set conditions for return to the negotiating table that were not met. In fact, the entire structure of the proximity talks was set up in the first place because Abbas felt that he could not resume direct negotiations without a total settlement freeze including East Jerusalem, among other things.

Because of public skepticism and significant opposition not only from Hamas but also from within his inner circle, President Abbas has felt the need to rally Arab support beyond his immediate constituency to lend a degree of legitimacy to his efforts and has sought and received Arab League support. But he has also faced considerable opposition. Hamas and other Palestinian opposition groups have harshly criticized his decision to start direct negotiations. They are well-placed to play the spoiler role. What is not clear at this point is whether Hamas will limit its opposition to the rhetorical arena or will in fact find ways to scuttle the talks before they begin. The bet for now is that they are setting public opinion up for the failure of the negotiations and for the “I told you so” minute after.

Given this domestic context, the Palestinian authority has sought steps (economic aid, freedom of movement, more access to Gaza, release of prisoners) not only to buy itself time among the Palestinian public, but also to lessen Hamas’s incentive to rock the boat. It is not yet clear what sort of steps will be announced as the negotiations commence in early September, but this will be important for Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad.

What happens will not only depend on Hamas and Palestinian opposition. Even beyond the obvious—that the tough final status issues that will now be the subject of negotiations are going to be highly contentious even under the best of circumstance and assuming that both sides will negotiate in good faith—the negotiations will be tested on the Israeli side by settlers and by those who do not support the kind of two-state solution envisioned in the negotiations. On September 26, the 10-month Israeli commitment to a partial freeze on settlement expansion ends and what follows next will be closely watched by the television cameras across the region and beyond.

Which is why, of course, so many are being dismissive of the prospects—and of the one-year timeline for reaching an agreement. And yet, if an agreement is possible at all at this point between the current Israeli government and the Palestinian authority it is just as likely to happen in one year’s time as in two or three. It is not clear what time adds. Deadlines focus the mind and, in any case, time is running out on the two-state solution.

In the end, the parties are probably unlikely to be able to conclude the terms of a final status agreement on their own, and will need ideas and bridging proposals from the mediators. Whether this will happen or not remains to be seen, but this cannot be tested without commencement of serious negotiations. It is a necessary but by no means sufficient step in the pursuit of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.