TOPICS > Politics

Obstacles Appear on Road to Progress in Mideast Talks

BY Robert Zeliger  September 2, 2010 at 11:18 AM EST

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of State Clinton and President Abbas meet; AFP/Getty

To begin with, on the eve of the talks, Hamas took responsibility for an attack on Israelis in the West Bank that left four dead. The attack was quickly condemned by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, which accused Hamas of trying to derail the talks and quickly rounded up more than 250 suspected Hamas activists in the West Bank to show their fury at their rivals. President Obama also condemned the attack as an act of “senseless slaughter.”

The individual attack is probably not enough to scuttle talks — though some question whether that was really the Hamas motive. More likely, it was meant to embarrass the Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and remind the world they are also stakeholders in the region’s political future.

According to Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, whether talks are stalled due to violence would depend on the level of intensity from Hamas.

“An Israeli government can negotiate despite the fact that there is one, two or even three terrorist attacks. But it would be almost impossible to negotiate if Hamas does what it did in 1995 and 1996 — conduct a campaign of terror. If an Israeli government were under a campaign of terror, there would be no way they could go on with these negotiations.”

Another obstacle, most analysts agree, is the rapidly approaching deadline for the moratorium on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank to be lifted. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the moratorium in place in order to entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table, but the Israelis insist it was a one-time commitment and would not be renewed when it expires on Sept. 26. Palestinians and other Arab leaders taking part in Thursday’s meeting — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan — have demanded the moratorium remain for them to continue to support negotiations.

“If the Palestinians are forced to backtrack on that commitment, it leaves them with almost no legitimacy,” said Amjad Atallah, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team. “If you weaken Abu Mazen [a nickname for Mahmoud Abbas] instead of strengthening him, you’re working at cross purposes.” Ultimately, Atallah said, you need Abbas to have enough legitimacy with the Palestinians to bring them along on whatever deal is reached.

Related Video

“Everyone on all sides is nervous about the moratorium,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.”

Between now and Sept. 26, Makovsky said, there will be feverish negotiations to come to some sort of an agreement. That has already begun. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, met with President Abbas in Amman, Jordan, over the weekend to discuss it.

One solution might include Israel agreeing to continue the moratorium on far-flung settlements in the West Bank, but allowing continued growth on settlements that are widely believed will become part of Israel in a future deal. Of course, there is no absolute consensus on which settlements fall into which category, and disputes over contested areas could disrupt talks.

Ultimately, the biggest obstacle might be the two leaders themselves, both of whom have been to the table before and failed to deliver. Mahmoud Abbas governs over a deeply divided population, skeptical that the negotiations can lead to a solution. Furthermore, Abbas doesn’t have the stature that his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, could claim.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu is part of a coalition that includes most of the country’s far-right parties, who almost uniformly do not want to see any compromise with the Palestinians over land. And there are questions about Netanyahu’s commitment to a final outcome.

“The two-state solution is not the culmination of his dreams, it was never a priority for Netanyahu,” said Feldman of Brandeis. Nevertheless, Feldman said, the Israeli leader has come around to accept its probable necessity given the current political climate.

“He realizes there is no way around it, not just because of the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, but also because it is tied to what he believes is a nightmare scenario for Israel — what he perceives as an international campaign to delegitimize Israel. He gradually has come to understand that it is not going to be possible in the long run to battle this campaign at delegitimizing the country without a resolution of the conflict that will end the basic reality of occupation of Palestinians.”

All analysts the NewsHour spoke with insisted ultimately that the United States would make or break the negotiations based on how deeply they wade into the stream.

“The question now is the political will on the part of the U.S.,” said New America’s Atallah. “The positions of the Israelis and Palestinians are moderate variations of what they enunciated going back to 1991. They haven’t effectively changed. We know what the Israelis want and we know what the Palestinians want. Throughout the process the U.S. has operated as a facilitator. We tell both sides, ‘please bridge the gaps.’ But it’s never happened. The question now is will the U.S. exercise the political will to bridge those gaps in a way that creates lasting peace. It’s not enough to just be an impartial observer. We have to get in there and actually be a negotiator. We’ve said this is part of the vital national security interest of the country. How can we say that and then leave it up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to work it out?”