Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians will be renewed in early September. The sides will discuss all the difficult core issues, including settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian “right of return.” In order to strengthen weakened Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, two Arab leaders — Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah — were invited to the White House on the eve of the opening of the talks.
Secretary Clinton’s announcement comes at an interesting time. Despite the administration’s best efforts and the hard work of U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell, the peace process is nothing short of pathetic. The sides could not even agree on holding direct negotiations, and instead held proximity talks, because the basic differences between them are so great and the mistrust is deeper than ever. Each side faces circumstances that make a true compromise nearly impossible. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu governs over a right-wing coalition whose members oppose prolonged settlement freezes. Israel also continues to endure sporadic rocket fire on its cities from the West Bank and Gaza. If this becomes severe or deadly enough, it could once again ignite conflict in the region. On the Palestinian side, Abbas faces growing criticism from his own people for not being able to achieve substantial Israeli compromises despite his largely successful termination of terror and violence. He governs over a crumbling PLO, and his radical opponents in Hamas in Gaza continue to challenge his rule and legitimacy.
The Obama administration is all too aware of these obstacles. Despite their optimistic statements, they are not initiating these renewed peace talks with the expectation of achieving a final Arab-Israeli peace. Rather, they are trying to prevent violence from erupting in September. Israel’s temporary freeze on building new settlements — announced on November 25, 2009, after international pressure reversed the plan to build 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem — will expire on September 26. Members of Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, said in Helsinki in July that “there is no chance the freeze will be extended.” Lieberman heads Yisrael Beiteinu, a nationalist party that takes a hard line on territorial issues. Loss of this party would rob Netanyahu’s 74-seat ruling coalition of its majority in the 120-member parliament.
But if Israel chooses to resume building settlements, the Palestinians will likely respond with violence. A third intifada — which has been long in the making — could erupt, and it could take long months to put down the flames, since it is not clear that the current Palestinian leadership would be able to stop it. Since the region as a whole is highly volatile, this could lead to a broader regional conflict.
Renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians — even if they achieve little else — could prevent or at least postpone this potential outbreak of violence. Speaking directly after they have not met in long months could change the dynamics between the sides. This would fall short of a peace agreement, which, in all likelihood, will not be achieved. But leaving aside that and Secretary Clinton’s ambitious promises, it might give the region a longer period of relative calm.
– Meyrav Wurmser is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy.