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Can Israel, Palestinians Find Formula to Make Progress on Peace?

July 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
To examine the challenges and opportunities for Israel and the Palestinians going into a new round of talks, Judy Woodruff gets analysis from David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Hussein Ibsish of the American Task Force on Palestine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the prospects for peace, opportunities, and stumbling blocks, I’m joined by David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

Welcome back to the NewsHour.

HUSSEIN IBISH, Middle East commentator: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Makovsky, let me start with you. Why are these talks happening now, and do they have any better chance of success than what we have seen before?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute For Near East Policy: As we just heard in the setup piece, they really haven’t sat together for five years now. A lot has changed since then.

And, basically, Kerry comes in. Remember, this was President Obama who on the second day of his first term had put a Middle East negotiator in place, George Mitchell. And he’s someone who clearly, this president, wants to do what he can to solve this tragic conflict which has gone on for decades.

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And he’s made six trips out there, more than any secretary of state recently. And he basically said, look, you want this administration in, this is — this will be your last chance. And so I think there’s a sense, certainly on the Palestinian side, that if they don’t try this, you know, that they could write off this administration because we have got a lot of other issues to deal with here in the United States.

So, this was a moment that — it’s unclear people are hopeful that it’s going to work, but I think it’s a window that could be lost if there at least isn’t an effort. And Netanyahu has always been willing to sit with Abbas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hussein Ibish, how do you see the willingness of the two sides to do this right now?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, I think from a political point of view, the situation is difficult for both of them, frankly.

And I think that’s why it took some cajoling and some inducements and some persuasion and all those trips that David referred to by Secretary Kerry to get them to the table. But in the end, at a minimum, when the bilateral relationship is so important between Israel and the United States and between Israel and the Palestinians, neither party wants to be seen internationally and particularly in Washington as obstructionists, as the guys who say no.

And so in the end both of them came, I think, with some skepticism and with some suspicion of each other, but also probably with some hope against hope that Kerry is going to put together a formula and that they can find a formula to actually make progress both on the ground and at the table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David Makovsky, what is known about what they’re going to talk about and what they’re going to talk about first and then second and so on?

DAVID MAKOVSKY:  I guess I will throw in one more thing of hope, because everyone gets — you have never gone broke being a pessimist about the Middle East.

So, we’re not here to predict great, grand breakthroughs. But I think what is something very interesting to listen for is also Netanyahu saying Israel can not slide towards binationalism. That’s basically the end of the state of Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does that mean?

DAVID MAKOVSKY:  That means that if Israel wants a character as a democratic country, a Jewish country with equal rights for all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, it needs a two-state solution.

And he has never framed peace in terms of Israeli self-interest. And he’s doing it in the last three months. And people who meet with him tell me he’s doing it all the time with them. So again I don’t want to hold and say that there’s going to be a breakthrough tomorrow. It won’t be. But this is something new, a new motif.

I would just say in terms of the talks themselves, it will be — it might be a little bit boring over the next day because they’re going to talk about what is the agenda, what is the frequency of the meetings? There’s a venue. There’s published reports saying they’re already going to move to the region. What is going to be the structure, which issues do they tackle first, these sorts of things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if it’s just about the process, how much does it really matter?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Yes. Well, it matters a great deal, especially from the Palestinian point of view, because built into this relationship is a vast asymmetry of power.

It’s probably the single greatest in modern history between two negotiating groups. The power of the Israelis vs. the relative disempowerment of the Palestinians is enormous. And so for the Palestinians to be trapped in an endless series of sort of an endless loop of conversations with the Israelis about — that don’t seem to go anywhere is a nightmare scenario, particularly when they remember in the 1990s that the number of settlers doubled between ’93 and ’98 from 200,000 to 400,000.

And now it’s over half-a-million. For them, terms of reference are very important. Just agreeing to a very specific framework about what it is they’re talking about and what role the United States is going to play in brokering, in holding the sides to meet their agreements, in bridging and all that stuff is really very, very significant. It sounds like technical details, but it sets us up for failure or success.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much does it matter, David Makovsky, how much the publics are behind this, the Israeli public, the Palestinian public? How do you read that?

DAVID MAKOVSKY:  I think it’s critical, because we’re not in the era of the giants anymore.

When you had guys like Yitzhak Rabin, when you had people like Anwar Sadat or King Hussein of Jordan, these were leaders who really swept the publics behind them. And even then, by the way, there were problems we shouldn’t romanticize. But we have got two risk-averse leaders who don’t want to get too far out ahead because they’re looking usually over their right shoulder, not the left shoulder.

And, therefore, if you have publics that are, as you said in the setup piece, they’re skeptical and even outright cynical, then they’re not going to want to get out too much in front. So, for this to have any hope, these leaders, because they won’t have a big breakthrough to announce immediately, they need to — their tone has to change where they can engage in what I would call synchronized political messaging, where they talk to each other’s public and let the public see why there’s something in it for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is there a sense, Hussein Ibish, that they’re ready to do that?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, I think it’s going to be slow. They may be willing to, but they’re going to be very cautious.

I think there’s a whole ‘nother angle here, which is especially on the Palestinian side, there needs to be a lot of attention to improving daily living conditions, to provide a support, a bottom-up support for this top-down diplomacy. They need to see economic benefits. They need to see greater access and mobility. They need to feel that this is bringing an improvement to their daily lives.

And if they don’t see that, it’s going to be much harder to sustain this because they can’t live with the status quo as easily as the Israelis can. They live under military occupation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how quickly do they need to see that? Both of you are suggesting this is going to not going to…

HUSSEIN IBISH: Immediately. I think immediately.

I think this should be put in place within days. And I think if there’s a package of economic aid, it needs to be tied to accountability, transparency and good governance. I think we need to help the Palestinians continue on the institution-building path and the reform path that they have been on and help them build their society at the same time that we pursue these negotiations, so that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum because for a while in the West Bank, it is going to look like this is all just some empty words in various far-flung places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this raises the question, David Makovsky, of how do we measure, how does one measure whether there is progress being made in these…

DAVID MAKOVSKY:  It’s going to be hard, because there’s going to be an effort to have a close hold, because each side is afraid that if they announce their concession, they’re going to be susceptible back home: You sold out. You gave it away for nothing. You didn’t get anything reciprocal in response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they have to trust each other.

DAVID MAKOVSKY:  Right. They have got to build that up.

But, like, to pick up on what Hussein said before about economic development, that is not controversial on either side. I think both sides want it. Where Israel thought it was a zero sum was what we saw in the setup piece, was the release of 104 prisoners, again and state just pending progress, but involved in the murders of 55 civilians, mothers and their babies and things like that.

And it’s not maybe felt in the United States, but in Israel, that is viewed as, well, Abbas says he wants to show to his people that there’s some changes on the ground, but at whose expense? And that’s a danger. We have got to look for things that are not zero sum, like economics.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Or security cooperation, which has to be maintained and improved.

And that should in turn lead to greater access and mobility for Palestinians and real talks about what the P.A. can do in Area C, which is the part of the West Bank that they have been barred from operating in, 60 percent of it, all of that stuff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All eyes on these talks starting tonight.

Hussein Ibish, David Makovsky, we thank you.

DAVID MAKOVSKY:  Thank you very much.