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Amid U.S.-Israel Meeting, Examining Paths Forward for Peace Process

Following talks in Washington between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gwen Ifill speaks with policy experts Robert Danin and Robert Malley about the state of U.S.-Israel relations and the prospects for peace negotiations in the Middle East.

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    Joining us now to assess the stakes and the undercurrents at today's meeting are Robert Danin, until last month the head of mission for the quartet of nations and international groups working on the peace process. A former deputy assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, he's now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Robert Malley, who was special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, he's now the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group.

    Mr. Malley, Stephen Hadley, the former national security adviser to President Bush, was quoted last week as saying this meeting between these two was doomed to success. He's speaking about the atmospherics of it. Is that right?

    ROBERT MALLEY, Middle East program director, International Crisis Group: That is right.

    I think both — both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu had one overriding objective, which is to overcome what had been a very troubled relationship in the past and to paint a very different picture. They had different reasons for doing that, both domestic, but also I think, in the case of President Obama, the fact that he reached the conclusion that the months of tension over the issue of settlement construction between his administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu's government had ended up not being particularly beneficial to the U.S., a fight that the U.S. administration picked perhaps at the wrong time on the wrong issue.

    This was a meeting that was, as Stephen Hadley said, doomed to succeed, because both sides wanted it to be so.


    Did that work?

    ROBERT DANIN, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, by all accounts, it has. They clearly evidenced a new friendship, a new comity, a desire to move forward. This is a prerequisite for being able to make serious progress together.


    Let's — did you detect any movement in many of the key issues on the table? Let's start with one of them, this movement toward direct talks.

    Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying for some time that's what he wanted. This has not been met with embrace from the other side. Did you get any sense today there was movement, or was it just more talk?


    Well, I think, on the one hand, the two leaders managed to bury or to hide their differences. They didn't manage to resolve them.

    And the main difference is not over whether there's going to be direct talks or not. The main issue, which we're going to confront, if not today, in a few months down the road, is what the two parties, what the U.S. and Israel believes is right for the peace process, how far Israel is prepared to go, and at what pace.

    On that issue, both sides at this point are prepared to say, let's sort of ignore our different substantive views they certainly haven't addressed. And that's a very different issue. And that's going to be — that's confront them either in September, if direct talks begin, or down the road.

    But, ultimately, they're not going to be able to ignore what is — at root was the reason for the disagreement in the past, which is that they don't have the same vision about how quickly and what direction the peace process needs to go.


    Mr. Danin, the president said today, on the question of the settlement moratorium, that — someone asked him whether they would extend the freeze. And he said, well, these talks will probably solve all that. We won't have to deal with it.

    Is that a realistic possibility?


    I think, when the moratorium expires on Sept. 26, Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to be in a difficult position. He's going to have to make a very difficult choice.

    Either he's going to have to decide to renew the moratorium, in which case he's going to be — he's going to mobilize right-wing opposition in Israel. People will criticize him for having said that he would not renew it when he did initiate it the first time. And then they will say, you went back on your word and you did so.

    Or he's going to choose not to renew the moratorium, in which case the international pressure will be tremendous. And if they have already…


    Rock and a hard place.


    Very much so. Very much so.

    And if the talks with the Palestinians, the direct talks, have begun already, it will be a real challenge to see whether or not they can be sustained with that moratorium lapsing. I don't think they can.


    Do you think they can?


    I think it's going to be very hard for President Abbas already. He, himself, the Palestinian president, is between a rock and a hard place.

    On the one hand, I think it's true that he wants direct talks. I mean, my conversations with Palestinians suggest that they understand that, in direct talks, in fact, they are going to have a better chance of having the U.S. on their side hopefully as they see it putting pressure on Israel.

    On the other hand, President Abbas faces his own domestic constituency, people to whom he has been told we're not going to direct talks unless the settlement — there's a complete settlement freeze, unless we have an agreement on what the final destination is going to be.

    He could come back partially on his word, and I think he will. He can't simply ignore what he said in the past and tell his people, forget what I told you. We're now moving on to direct negotiations.


    As interested as the president seemed today in talking about direct talks and about getting the peace process back on track, Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed as much interested in talking about Iran and about the threat to Israel's security from Iran.

    Was that them just talking past each other, or are they actually working towards some sort of an agreement about what to do?


    Well, I thought what was interesting today was both sides seemed to go out of their way to try to address the concerns of the other.

    Both sides went out of their way to point out — for example, Prime Minister Netanyahu talking about the importance of peace and wanting peace, President Obama speaking about Iran, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, praising the president for what he's done on Iran.

    Clearly, they have different priorities. I think that cuts at the core of their difference. For President Obama, moving forward on an Israeli-Palestinian peace is a strategic interest and a national priority. For Prime Minister Netanyahu, the priority is Iran.

    And they tried to come to some understanding today, or at least to come to a modus vivendi on this.


    They also both seemed to set back — and maybe this had already happened — from the brink a little bit on this question of the blockade of Gaza.

    There have been interim steps taken which have eased and allowed some goods and services to go across the border. Some checkpoints have been opened. Is that now a problem they have moved past?


    Well, they may have moved past the problem. I don't think Gaza has moved past the problem.

    There still is a problem in Gaza, which is not so much one of the availability of goods. It's a problem of de-development. I mean, Gaza has been suffering from a lack of any economic life for many years, even before the blockade.

    And that's a problem that is not being addressed. And my fear is that people are quite happy. And I — everyone should welcome the fact that there are going to be more goods going to go into Gaza. But the real problem today is not that goods aren't available — that people don't have the money. People don't have the economic life. People can't export. They can't travel. And that's what's really going to condemn Gaza, not just to poverty and to non-development.

    It also could be a recipe for confrontation in the future, when Hamas, which governs or tries to govern Gaza, may say, this isn't going anywhere. Time to go back to the guns.


    As both sides, Israel and the United States — we should say they're on the same side now — as they try to work out something in the next few months, how is President Obama viewed by this Israeli administration?


    Well, I think this administration has viewed the — this administration with a certain degree of incredulity. They have been confused.

    They have not — they came back a few times from Washington, and they said, we're not exactly sure what the United States wants from us.

    And I think this has been symptomatic of a real problem, the fact that the two leaders really haven't come to an understanding with each other, that they can spend as much together in the Oval Office and still not really understand one another. And I think what today was about was trying to come to a new understanding.


    There was something that Prime Minister Netanyahu said that was interesting at the very end of their — the meeting today. He said, you know, we are both two leaders who confound the cynics.

    Is this a case in which they can confound the cynics?


    They certainly could. I mean, I think if they were able to reach a peace agreement, the one who would confound the cynics most would be Prime Minister Netanyahu.

    People are judging him or misjudging him, but the perception is that he's not going to be prepared to go as far as his predecessors, and his predecessors didn't go as far as the Palestinians wanted them to go. So, it's pretty hard to see how they're going to — that they're going to get there, which, again, for me, underscores the fact that this meeting was about projecting the image that things are back to normal.

    I don't think we really know where the two leaders are going to go when, in the months and perhaps years ahead, they are going to confront the real dilemma of, what does it mean to reach a peace agreement? What kind of compromises is Israel prepared to make?


    Short of reaching a peace agreement, can they confound the cynics?


    Well, I think we will know in the next few weeks, actually. I think that the president made it very clear that he expects some movement in the next few weeks on the ground.

    And I think Prime Minister Netanyahu also affirmed that you would see some steps in the next few weeks.


    He did say that.


    So, I think the test will be rather short.


    OK. We will wait and see what that is.

    Robert Danin, Robert Malley, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.

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