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Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks: What Will Help, Hinder?

August 20, 2010 at 7:32 PM EST
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The first peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in nearly two years are set to resume in Washington next month. Jeffrey Brown talks with analysts David Makovsky and Ghaith Al-Omari about what could come out of -- or derail -- the upcoming meetings.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And to talk about the talks, we go to David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute and co-author of the book “Myths, Illusions and Peace,” and Ghaith Al-Omari, advocacy director at the American Task Force on Palestine and a fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is a former aide to President Abbas.

Ghaith al Omari, what is your answer to the question posed at the announcement today, why now?

GHAITH AL-OMARI, advocacy director, American Task Force on Palestine: Why now? Because I think there’s a belief in both, among the Palestinians and among the Israelis, as well as in this country, that a two-state solution is essential for the strategic interests of all parties.

We have gone through the preparatory work, through the indirect talks, and it’s time to start now. We are coming up to September, which is going to — which was promising to be a difficult month. The settlement moratorium was slated to end there. The U.N. General Assembly was to — is to convene. And we need to show progress before these events, so that we can maintain a degree of stability in the region and in the political process there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, yet, David Makovsky, all kinds of issues over the last 20 months, and no direct talks, so why — what propels? Is it that September deadline for the end of the moratorium? Or what do you see?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute For Near East Policy: Well, I agree with Ghaith that, basically, September is a key month and, if the moderates don’t show progress, the only people who gain are the radicals.

I think you have got two milestones on the road to September — to today. One was July 6. And that was the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. And I think what is really interesting, which stayed out of the press, was that it was really the president himself who turned out to be the biggest proponent for direct talks and really pushed this hard.

And that led him to talk a lot to the Arab states on July 29, when they convened and called for direct talks, saying, of course, the timing is up to Abbas. But it was really the U.S. working this with the Arab states, because Abbas told the United States, you want me, I need the Arabs. Get the Arabs, and then you can get me.

So, I think Barack Obama, who I think had strained relations before with Israel…

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me — because wasn’t that meeting you are referring to smooth over exactly those kinds of problems they have been having?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Yes, they — it was smoothing over problems, but I think it went beyond that. When Obama came out of that July 6 meeting with Netanyahu and said it was an excellent meeting, we have heard a lot of buzz, both here in Washington and the Middle East, suggesting that Netanyahu shared his bottom lines for how he saw the endgame with the Palestinians for the first time with this president.

And I think that had a big impact on the president’s thinking. We don’t know this for sure. Everyone is mum on this. But I think the president, I think, really kicked into gear here and really mobilized the Arab states. And that’s what helped facilitate Abbas to come to the table.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Ghaith, Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell talked today about the so-called final status issues. They would all be on the table — now, just to tick that off, boundaries for a future Palestinian state, security guarantees for Israel, the status of Israel, Jerusalem — the status of Jerusalem — excuse me — the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Those are a lot of tough issues that have been around for a long time. Where do you see a starting point or a focal point?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: There has been tremendous progress made since the late — the end of the last century. We know, by and large, what the final map is going to look like in terms of the final boundaries. The other issues are obviously important. It’s up to the parties to decide where they start. But I have heard the Palestinians repeatedly say they want to start with security and borders. And, of course, that includes settlements. And these are the issues where the two parties are closest.

All of that said, the Palestinians cannot sign to a piece of paper that doesn’t — or to a deal that does not cover all of the issues. So, I think they will start with topics where they are closest and use that to propel them to the more difficult issues.

All of that said, though, I think the challenge initially is not in the negotiating room, but how do you create — among this existing atmosphere of mistrust, how do you create a political environment that’s conducive to the continuation of negotiations?

That’s why we saw Secretary Clinton today talking about the need to continue supporting the Palestinian institution-building program, building the economy, building security. We have to work, both in the negotiating room, but in the wider political sphere to create the right kind of environment to support a peace deal and to pass a peace deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, David, I mean, those kinds of tensions are not only between the two sides, but within each side as well, the internal tensions.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, there’s no doubt. I was just out there, and I spent time in Ramallah. I spent time in Israel. And I — President Abbas invited me to lunch. And I asked him straightly about Hamas and about, you know, what he thought about that. He said, David, look, Iran gives Hamas $500 million a year.

And, to me, it was clear that he saw them more as part of the problem than part of the solution. And I think it gets to the broader question, which is what is propelling these parties forward at this time is that if Israel and the P.A., the Palestinian Authority, cannot find a way to solve their problems, the only people who are going to win are the radicals.

And the alternative is not the Hadassah women of Brooklyn. And so I think that terrorists a belief you have to go forward. I agree with Ghaith, which is — how you need a broader framework. You need an environment that is conducive. They have done settlements, but also in terms of ensuring that Palestinian incitement drops, so that is not an inflammatory issue. You need a broader environment for peace.

JEFFREY BROWN: But doesn’t Prime Minister Netanyahu also have his own issues?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, he does.

JEFFREY BROWN: He has his coalition.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s going to have all kinds of pressure from his right.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Absolutely. And I — my bet, if we had a bet, I would say he’s going to head the talks himself. It’s not going to be your classic peace delegations that are going to come, 20 people are going to come in with briefcases.

This is — whatever the launch is going to look like, it is going to be Abbas and Netanyahu. He fears leaks. Each one of these issues are political dynamite for him with this coalition. My own private view is that he’s going to have to broaden his government to bring in elements of the opposition, the Kadima Party of Tzipi Livni, not in place of Netanyahu, but alongside him and alongside Defense Minister Barak to give him the political wherewithal to pass this, because I’m not convinced that he could do it otherwise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ghaith Al-Omari, what is the U.S. role here? What is the — they were very careful today to say that this is a bipartisan or bilateral negotiation, that they would step in with ideas if necessary.

Will they have to? And what ideas do they bring to the table? And what is the strength or weakness of the U.S. coming to the table?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: I think it’s proper that the U.S. makes it clear that the parties have to own the process. I think this is important for political reasons and for diplomatic reasons.

However, the U.S. has been very heavily involved in making this moment happen. And I think the U.S. will continue to be involved. It is too premature to talk about American ideas on the table. We have to wait and see. We have to see where the parties are, where the gaps are. And based on that, we will see what the U.S. substantive role is.

As David — actually, I am going to plagiarize him — he likes always to say, you can bridge over a river, but not an ocean. Ultimately, American bridging proposal would be very helpful, when we reach the final moment, the moment of decision, where the differences are identifiable and clear.

Until then, though, the U.S. has a very important role to play, important role to play in terms of ensuring that the code of conduct is adhered to by both parties, on the Israeli side, the issue of settlement expansion, the issue of home demolitions and incursions and issues of this sort, and, on the Palestinian side, the issues of preventing terrorism, reducing incitement, and continuing with democratization and building of institutions of statehood.

So, the U.S. will have a role, both inside the negotiating room, when the time is right, but also and more importantly, in the initial stages in creating the right kind of atmosphere.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, David, very briefly, what do you look for to know if this is working? What is the key thing that you look for?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, I would look to see if Netanyahu and Abbas are doing this themselves. I think it’s the most serious if the leaders themselves engage.

I agree that the issue of security and borders are going to be — are going to be first and foremost. Israel felt it got out of Gaza and got rockets. It has to know that the security is such so, if you didn’t like their book, you won’t want to see the movie in the West Bank.

So, if they could focus on borders and security, and have the broader strategic context that you just heard, I think then there is at least a chance here of some serious strides.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Makovsky, Ghaith al-Omari, thank you both very much.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Thank you.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Thank you.