What’s Next For Israeli-Palestinian Diplomacy?


In the wake of the collapse of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks and the abrupt end of U.S. efforts to negotiate an extension of Israel’s West Bank settlement freeze, all sides are maneuvering for position as the Obama administration seeks more pragmatic peace policies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is signaling a tougher line on Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority leaders seem to be edging closer to pursuing a unilateral route to statehood — and Hamas, which isn’t even party to the negotiations, is repeating its vow to win back all of “historic Palestine.”

While several top analysts concede administration missteps have set back U.S. diplomacy in the region, there is hope that a narrowed focus on a handful of key “core status” issues and the expanding role of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may lead to limited progress — or at least prevent a descent back into violence.

Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said the administration is “going back to smaller, more realistic steps. They’re now taking an issue-by-issue approach to see if there can be some common ground on the less intractable issues.”

Mariaschin predicted “very active” diplomacy as the administration shifts gears.

But there are questions about whether Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was pushed out on a limb by the administration’s early focus on settlements, can now back down and begin serious, albeit indirect, negotiations while Israel resumes building in eastern Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.

While the Palestinian Authority has made strides in laying the political and economic foundation for a future state, Abbas has done little to curb the officially sanctioned incitement that has undermined Israeli confidence in the peace process.

And many analysts wonder if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition will allow any real progress on the explosive issues that U.S. negotiators will now put on the table — and even if Netanyahu himself is ready for that step.

“Whether Netanyahu can do this with his current coalition is, to me, the biggest issue,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think the prime minister was successful last summer in persuading President [Barack] Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah that he shared their objective of a two-state solution. But it’s not enough to share an objective; you need a shared strategy. I’m not sure this coalition is willing to support Netanyahu in that.”

Clinton’s expanded role after almost two years of administration frustration in the region was signaled by her role in delivering the message of the administration’s shifting strategies.

Speaking to a forum of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy on Friday, Clinton announced the end of the faltering U.S. effort to win a 90-day renewal of Israel’s West Bank settlement moratorium in return for a rich package of incentives — and the apparent end of the effort to revive direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, with the objective of an agreement in one year.

“Now, it is no secret that the parties have a long way to go and that they have not yet made the difficult decisions that peace requires,” she said.

Instead of focusing on pressing for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks — a priority for the Netanyahu government earlier in the year — the administration will return to indirect diplomacy using U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, with a focus on “the core issues of the conflict on borders and security; settlements, water and refugees; and on Jerusalem itself,” she said.

At the same time, the administration will continue to work with the Palestinians on “the state-building work of the Palestinian Authority and continue to urge the states of the region to develop the content of the Arab Peace Initiative and to work toward implementing its vision,” Clinton said.

A Palestinian state “achieved through negotiations is inevitable,” Clinton said.

But in Washington, there were questions about whether an administration that badly misread the Middle East playing field when it took office almost two years ago — and which now faces a deteriorating political climate at home and intensifying crises in Afghanistan and North Korea — really intends to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority.

“There’s no question that they’re basically throwing in the towel,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv. “I think they now believe this is the wrong time, there’s no real potential for progress here, so why beat your head against the wall when failure is so likely?”

Unless the new, indirect talks produce quick indications of progress, he said, the shift will “encourage the Palestinians to go the unilateral route.”

Walker said no leader on either side is eager to take political risks to advance a peace process that seems unlikely to succeed.

Aaron David Miller, a former top U.S. diplomat and now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that in shifting policies the administration “made a virtue out of a necessity.”

Neither “pummeling Israel” to agree to a settlement freeze nor “bribing them” worked, he said, “which brings them back to the default position: focusing on the core issues. That’s the good news — that they’re now on the right track. The bad news is that the gaps between the parties are very large, even on the issues that are perceived as the least hopeless.”

Complicating matters are the domestic political realities facing Abbas and Netanyahu, he said, and the fact that neither side is particularly eager to give up its leverage on the core issues the administration wants to be the focus of the new negotiations.

While the administration is shifting gears, the biggest obstacle to successful negotiations remains unchanged, Miller argued.

“It all revolves around ownership,” he said. “Unless the Israelis and Palestinians are willing to own this process to a much greater degree than they do now, it strikes me as highly improbable the administration will be able to make much headway.”

The Washington Institute’s Makovsky was somewhat more hopeful, if not optimistic.

An Israeli leader who earlier in the year rejected indirect “proximity talks” now seems willing to participate, he said. And indirect talks could give Abbas the “street cred he needs to work with the United States and focus on these issues.”

The key, he said, will be finding some way to “sequence the talks so that you show you’re not putting off those core issues indefinitely.”

Netanyahu’s tough talk on settlements and Abbas’ talk about unilateral statehood efforts are “maneuvering” in advance of the new talks, he said. “Once you get specific, a lot of things can start falling into place. The question is, is there the political will to do that?”

But he questioned whether Netanyahu’s political situation — some of it self-imposed, since he has resisted calls to bring Kadima into his coalition — will be an obstacle to the administration’s overhauled strategy.

“The administration wants to walk down this road with him, hand in hand,” Makovsky said. “My fear is that if he doesn’t want that, there will be a rising chorus in the administration that argues it’s time to become more confrontational.”