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Is the Mideast peace process dead?

April 24, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
The nine-month Mideast peace effort suffered its latest blow when Israel announced its negotiators are walking away from the table after a reconciliation deal between rival Palestinian groups. Gwen Ifill talks to Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force for Palestine and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View on the elusive prospects for a peace deal.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: So, are these peace talks dead again?

For some analysis, we turn to Jeffrey Goldberg, a Bloomberg View columnist and a correspondent for “The Atlantic,” and Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow on the American Task Force for Palestine who writes extensively on Mideast issues.

Hussein Ibish, we — who is right in this?  We hurt Netanyahu say it is over. We heard John Kerry say there is always daylight.

HUSSEIN IBISH, The American Task Force on Palestine: Well, if Netanyahu wants to walk away, then it is over.

But I think that there is a greater likelihood than not that, come Tuesday, we will find a way to keep the ball in the air. I don’t think either side wants to say no to the United States. I think there have been some pains not to say no to the United States. And there are five days left. They’re not going to take the weekend off here.

So I think not dead yet, and listen to the State Department. That is the guiding light.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Goldberg, are you as optimistic?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, Bloomberg View: That was optimistic?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: The — look, it’s a low moment for the peace process, but it can always go lower. I mean, that’s what we know.

But, on the other hand, look, the only sure thing in the Middle East, the only consistent thing is sudden and dramatic change, so anything is possible. These are not good signs — obviously.

If you are the Israeli Cabinet, you’re looking at Hamas possibly coming into the Palestinian Authority and saying, you know, there’s no possible way we can deal with an organization who by charter is devoted to our destruction. You know, if you are the Palestinians, obviously, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, made a decision that is a popular decision among Palestinians.

But he knows that bringing Hamas into his government is not going to give him more flexibility to really reenter these peace negotiations.

GWEN IFILL: So what flexibility — let’s interpret optimism as the fact that these are not completely dead, Hussein Ibish.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Right.

GWEN IFILL: So what has to happen between now and the 29th, which is the deadline for these negotiations to be extended?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, a couple of things.

I think, firstly, we need to know exactly what it that the Palestinians think they are doing, because this is very similar. The language that they have agreed to is very similar to previous agreements that haven’t been implemented. And, yesterday, the State Department…

GWEN IFILL: You’re talking about the deal, the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Right.

There was a major agreement in Cairo, a major agreement in Doha, and other minor agreements that contained very similar language. Yesterday, the State Department laid out three key positions that any Palestinian government must meet, nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and abiding by existing Palestinian commitments.

Today, the U.N. special envoy for negotiations, Robert Serry, said President Abbas has assured him of three things. Any implementation of this agreement with Hamas will be based on recognition of Israel, nonviolence, and living up to those commitments.

So there does seem to be space here for having this agreement at least on paper and having the talk goes forward, if the Israelis are willing to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Goldberg, we seem to hear that space from John Kerry this afternoon, but I’m not so sure we heard it from the prime minister of Israel.

As long as this unity deal stays intact, is there any room for him to maneuver himself back to the table?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, he is boxed in by coalition partners who are to the right of his position on a Palestinian state, which is to say they are opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. So he already has very limited running room.

And, you know, and going back to what Hussein says, we  don’t really knows what’s going to happen within the framework of this agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Look, if Hamas abides by these conditions, then there’s no particular reason why the Israelis can’t move forward.

Of course, for Hamas to agree to those conditions that Hussein just laid out would mean that it’s ceasing to be Hamas. So I find it somewhat unlikely that we’re going to see much progress with that unity government.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like Abbas, for argument’s sakes right now, let’s just assume that there is something on the table, that they can get back to the table.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Right.

GWEN IFILL: What up until now — it’s been a long time, nine months.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: How long — what is on the table so far?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, certainly, there’s an outstanding aid program that has been discussed; $4 billion once left the secretary’s lips. We don’t know how much of that he can raise from both public and private source.

But there’s certainly an economic development program and a state and institution-building program for the Palestinians that is definitely an inducement. And you could have a government that is a national unity government that doesn’t include Hamas ministers and that’s able to go forward.

One benchmark to look for is not just next Tuesday, but in the meanwhile, to see what regional governments like the Egyptian, the Saudis, the Emirates and others have to say about this agreement. If they’re enthusiastic, that might well indicate a certain shifting of positions, you know, within a group like Hamas, or what they’re willing to tolerate with their imprimatur, even if they don’t participate in it.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Goldberg, they obviously — they came to the table in the first place, so both sides at some point thought there was something to be gained. So, at this point, can they afford to walk away?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, they can always walk away, but walking away is never forever.

They came to the table in large part because John Kerry really wanted them to come to the table. And I am in the camp of people who says, God bless him for trying. But at a certain point, you know, I go back to — it’s become a cliché already — but it’s something that the president has said over and over again, which is that you can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.

In other words, the negotiator, the mediator can’t want to do this. And, remember, all that we’re talking about so far, just to bring a little dose of really, you know, negative reality to this, all we’re talking about so far are trying to get them to reach agreements on how they would then go reach agreements.

They’re not talking about settlements or refugees or the future of Jerusalem. They’re just talking about how to talk. And that hasn’t even worked. So, at a certain point, I mean, we have to say that this is, indeed, a very low moment.

GWEN IFILL: Can we talk briefly about John Kerry’s high-wire acts…

HUSSEIN IBISH: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: … not only here, but also in Ukraine, also in Iran, all around the world, everywhere except where the president happens to be this week, which is Asia.

HUSSEIN IBISH: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: But I wonder whether — how big a setback this may have been for him today.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, I don’t know. I mean, we will have to see.

That is one of the big questions. Is this the moment when the Israeli-Palestinian track just falls apart on him or not? He’s not willing to give that up. The State Department wasn’t willing to give that up. And I think that they must have reasons for holding out hope.

I think they have been down this road before, with the Israelis, when they didn’t release prisoners and announced new Jerusalem settlements, with the Palestinians, when they signed the 15 agreements and other things. There have been these stumbling blocks. They have gotten over them.

The Congress is another matter. The Congress is going to look very carefully at everybody in any new Palestinian government.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey, John Kerry’s position?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: You know, my — this is informed speculation, but it’s still speculation.

My speculation is that the president at a certain point is going to say to John Kerry something of a version that he said already, which is, you know, these guys are really not ready for this. Maybe you should focus on something, you know, easy, like, you know~, Ukraine or something.

You know, there’s so much on the plate. And there are so many things right now that are more urgent than this, to be blunt, that I think that there might be some shift in resources and in time.

GWEN IFILL: You’re right. It never goes away.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Hussein Ibish, Jeffrey Goldberg, thank you both very much.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thank you.