U.S.-mediated talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials moved to Jerusalem on Wednesday, a symbolic gesture designed to lend credibility to the budding peace process. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have worked. Islamic militants are still lobbing mortars, and Israeli jets are still bombing tunnels. An expiration date on a settlement moratorium looms, and there seems to be little hope for a breakthrough.
Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the negotiations is the apparent lack of faith in the Obama administration among foreign diplomats and observers. As one exasperated reporter asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a briefing en route to Egypt on Tuesday: “Is there anything new that you’re putting on the table that will make a difference this time?”
Not many people seem to think so. Finding an optimist in these talks is, to say the least, a difficult task. And yet, there are a few — those rare veterans of the Middle East peace process who, despite years of aborted talks and discarded compromises, hold out hope for a final agreement.
Ghaith Al-Omari is one of them.
Al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator and aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, believes a compromise on the contentious issue of Israeli settlements is not only possible, but likely. A partial moratorium on the construction of new Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank is set to expire at the end of the month, and Abbas has threatened to walk away from peace talks if the freeze is not extended.
There are many commentators, Israelis among them, who believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has little incentive to offer Abbas a deal on settlements in order to keep him at the negotiating table. Netanyahu leads a fragile right-wing coalition, and several members of his inner circle, including the Israeli interior minister, have already declared their opposition to an extension of the moratorium.
Al-Omari’s experience has taught him, of course, that both sides will engage in a bit of “brinkmanship,” he said. Crises are not only likely but inevitable, especially as Israeli and Palestinian officials confront the thornier issues involved in a potential peace agreement, such as the status of Palestinian refugees and of Jerusalem. But the settlement dispute, he said, can be overcome. “I’m pretty certain that they will reach some sort of compromise,” Al-Omari said in an interview on Tuesday.
Even Al-Omari has difficulty explaining what makes him so hopeful. For one, he said, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have an interest in seeing the talks collapse after just two weeks of negotiations. The Obama administration, perhaps the most pro-Palestinian White House in decades, wouldn’t allow it. “You can see the American pressure now mounting on both sides,” Al-Omari said. And the Israelis, Al-Omari added, are unlikely to antagonize their most generous benefactors. “If it’s a blatant refusal from Israel to do anything right now, the administration is not going to sit quietly.”
Several proposals have already been floated for a potential compromise, Al-Omari said, and the Palestinians are likely to accept at least one of these options in order to keep the peace talks going. One of the more likely outcomes, Al-Omari said, is a plan offered by Israel’s intelligence chief, Dan Meridor, which would allow the construction of Jewish settlements in areas that are likely to remain under Israeli control. Such a framework would preclude the remote settlement outposts in Arab neighborhoods that have ignited conflict with Palestinians. “What we’re going to end up with is some new formula” for settlement construction, Al-Omari said.
Whether that bodes well for the longer-term prospects of a peace agreement remains to be seen. Al-Omari’s faith in the process and in the negotiators extends even to Netanyahu, whom most Palestinians and Palestinian officials distrust. “There’s a good history for that,” Al-Omari concedes. But in his political behavior and public statements, Netanyahu has cast himself as someone who is invested in the success of the negotiations, and who has — perhaps at his own peril — taken personal ownership of the peace process.
That, if nothing else, gives Al-Omari hope.
“It’s going to be very hard for him to walk away from it,” Al-Omari said of Netanyahu. “Both he and the Palestinians are digging in. I think both are going to play brinkmanship. But ultimately, neither side has an interest in the collapse of the negotiations now, and neither side wants to deliver to the president a failed process so early on.”