Michael Bröning contributed to the following post.
Following closed door meetings between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, serious "disagreement" remained between the US and Israel regarding Israeli settlement construction in occupied East Jerusalem, including Israel's approval that same day of the construction of 20 apartments in the Shepherd's Hotel compound in East Jerusalem. Prior to these meetings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the US position before the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington that continued settlement activity "undermines mutual trust and endangers the 'proximity' talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say they want and need."
The script to these 'proximity' talks was thrown overboard when the Netanyahu-led government declared the future construction of 1,600 housing units in occupied East Jerusalem during Vice President Biden's recent visit to the region. Following Israel's declaration, the Arab League and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas retracted their support for the talks. Ultimately, however, Abbas will likely have no choice but to bend to US pressure and return to the negotiation table given the fact that ominous 'proximity' talks have been blown out of proportion as "jump starting the peace process."
When negotiations do resume, a sober stocktaking of the prospects leaves little room for optimism. In diplomacy, 'proximity' talks are used to pave the way for direct negotiations; however, in Palestine-Israel, direct negotiations between the hostile parties have already been tried, tested, and largely failed for over 15 years. Additionally, the format and framework of any future talks remain unclear, and the Israeli government has successfully averted the Palestinian demand that talks be continued from where they were halted when Israeli Prime Minister Olmert left office in March 2009.
This difference reflects paramount differences in policy between both negotiating parties, which will be nearly impossible to bridge. While the Palestinian side is certainly not free of programmatic shortcomings, it is the unbending position of the Netanyahu-led government that seems to make success virtually impossible at this point in time. While the Israeli Prime Minister has publicly embraced the new round of negotiations, he has time and again repeated that "substantial negotiations" should be based on preconditions, including the indivisibility of Jerusalem as the "eternal capital of the Jewish people," a refusal to negotiate any return of refugees to Israel, not using pre-1967 borders as the basis for negotiations (thus insuring retention of large settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank), continued Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan valley, and Palestinian recognition of Israel as "the state of the Jewish people" (thus denying legitimacy to 20 percent of Palestinian Israelis). These preconditions, however, will be nearly impossible for any Palestinian negotiator to accept.
For any future negotiation to be meaningful, a new US approach is critical. In an attempt to bring Abbas to the (indirect) negotiation table, the US State Department has issued a "non paper" to Abbas, promising active US engagement as a true peace broker who will actively contribute to the process and -- if necessary -- openly label the spoiling side should negotiations fail. This stance was reiterated by the Vice President, who declared that the US will "continue to hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that will inflame tension or prejudice the outcome of these talks."
These uncommon declarations from a US administration open the door to overcoming the unconstructive bilateralism that has dominated peace efforts for years, and also may be why the Palestinian side had insisted on a ceiling of four months for open talks. This time frame would terminate an initial round of proxy negotiations just before the end of Prime Minister Netanyahu's 'partial' settlement moratorium and would increase pressure on Israel to expand the "settlement freeze," however limited its virtues.
Such an approach -- if duly implemented after an initial round of disappointing negotiations -- could essentially transform the US mission from that of a mere postman, delivering messages, to that of an effective and evenhanded arbitrator, a role that since 1967 has only been actively sought by former President Jimmy Carter, who successfully brokered the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. This new approach cannot contain only rhetoric and must be accompanied by a willingness of the US to use economic diplomacy and reductions in diplomatic support to reshape intractable positions on the core issues. The Jewish pro-peace group J Street recently referred to a new US-led approach by stating that "ending the conflict will require more than talk and process. It will take strong and sustained American -- and international -- leadership."
Thus, the best possible results of potential US-brokered 'proximity' talks may be their eventual replacement by meaningful negotiations under intensive US guidance and international pressure that rescues the State of Israel from an uncompromising government. In this sense, the most productive outcome of any coming rounds of 'proximity' talks might well prove to be their failure.
Jason Hicks was recently a visiting scholar with the Palestinian Academic Society for International Affairs (PASSIA) in East Jerusalem and is a regular commentator on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Michael Bröning is director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Jerusalem, a political foundation affiliated to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).