The announcement of the resumption of direct talks is a huge success for the administration, and for all those who care about resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Secretary of State Clinton, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Mitchell, and everyone who has been working on this issue for the past year have made Herculean efforts to get the parties to the table.
Yet the challenges ahead are great. In the coming months, the United States and its partners will need to work with the Israelis and Palestinians to ensure that the talks are primed for success by establishing clear parameters, building enforcement mechanisms to ensure the implementation of existing obligations, continuing to work with the Palestinian Authority on institution-building and offering the necessary support to permit success.
The parties come into negotiations with different expectations and requirements. The Israeli cabinet has repeated again and again that it is unwilling to enter talks with preconditions attached. President Abbas, on the other hand, has made it quite clear that he is not willing to commit to talks without any sense of the parameters and where they are headed.
Understandably, the Israelis do not want to be boxed in. Equally understandably, the Palestinians are worried that negotiations might drag on without any progress. The administration and its partners have found a way to bridge these concerns sufficiently to get Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas to join President Obama in Washington on September 1. The next challenge will be how these differences of opinion are bridged at the negotiating table.
Although Mitchell made it clear that these would be "direct bilateral negotiation between the parties with our assistance and with the assistance of our friends and allies," the administration will need to play a critical role in setting terms of reference that are agreed upon by both sides. Even if the Israelis and Palestinians will be the ones to hold the talks, they need to agree on what issues they will discuss, how they want to hold the discussions, who should be at the table, and who will hold the two sides accountable for their current obligations.
Monitoring obligations will be a critical component of success. These upcoming negotiations will require the two sides to build a level of trust in one another that does not currently exist. The leaders and the people they represent will need to believe not only that they can reach an agreement, but that once that agreement is signed, it will be implemented fully. Monitoring the two sides' implementation of the things they have already committed to--Israel's easing of movement and access and potentially a continued settlement moratorium, the Palestinians' efforts on security and institutional reform and policing of incitement--and ensuring obligations are met, will be critical to instilling confidence in the process.
The continued progress on the work of the Palestinian Authority and its partners to build and strengthen the Palestinian economy, security and institutions is linked directly to this monitoring. The Palestinian Authority's state-building plan and the efforts of the Mitchell and Blair teams as well as other public and private entities are slowly building the capacity of the future Palestinian state and its economy. These on-the-ground efforts hold out the promise of the day after the agreement for Israelis and Palestinians alike by demonstrating that security and prosperity are possible. It is essential that they not be held hostage to the ups and downs of the negotiating process.
All of these efforts will require the support not only of the United States, but of the Quartet, the Arab states and all those who back a two-state solution. The outlines of a deal may already be relatively clear but the actual details require the two parties to make great sacrifices. They will have to agree on how to deal with Jerusalem, what to do about the right of return and how to draw the exact lines on the map. For this, the Israelis and Palestinians will need the support of their neighbors and friends. Once an agreement is made, they will also require assistance in the implementation phase.
For example, if they were to agree on the options President Clinton laid out in 2000 for the refugees--that they may return to the new Palestinian state, be granted citizenship where they live or in another country, and be given compensation--the international community would have to be involved in implementing these options. Moreover, any agreement would need to have the support of the Arab countries who now host a significant portion of Palestinian refugees. Finally, the continuing on-the-ground efforts cannot succeed without the support of the international community. And right now, the Arab states in particular are not living up to the commitments of support that they have made to the Palestinian Authority.
Ultimately, it will have to be the Israeli and Palestinian leaders themselves who find a solution that they can both agree to. Along the way, however, they will need significant support from their friends, with the United States in the lead.