Skeptics have had a field day criticizing the direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to be launched this week in Washington. To be sure, the obstacles to concluding an agreement are significant, the stakes are high and expectations are low.
But it is time to give the Obama Administration some credit. The White House is launching direct talks on Thursday with tools that previous administrations did not have or were unwilling to employ in past negotiation efforts. Despite the rampant skepticism, there are indeed reasons to be hopeful without being naïve.
The Obama Administration has come a long way to get to this point. The year-long tussle with Israel over West Bank settlement construction, a botched photo-op between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership in New York one year ago, and painstaking attempts to bring the parties to direct talks in recent months have eroded the optimism and expectations that came with the election of President Obama.
However, there are a number of essential ingredients that the Administration has got right as it launches direct talks. Martin Indyk mentioned four of them last week in the New York Times: 1) there is very little violence between the parties today; 2) settlement activity has been limited; 3) the majority on both sides support a two-state solution; and 4) the contours of an agreement are largely already known. Here are four more:
First, violence is down because security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians is at an all-time high. Palestinian security forces trained with the direct support and supervision of the United States, Israel and Jordan have significantly secured the West Bank and created an atmosphere conducive to economic growth. The success of the burgeoning Palestinian security force is providing Israelis with much needed confidence. Security is - and always has been - Israel's number one concern. With such cooperation already in place, these talks will have a distinct advantage over all other previous efforts.
Second, the Arab states have endorsed President Mahmoud Abbas' negotiating with Israel and pledged to be part of the effort. The inclusion of Egypt and Jordan in the launch next week is vital. As co-chairs of the Arab League's Arab Peace Initiative follow-up committee, Egypt and Jordan bring with them the promise of normal relations for Israel with 22 Arab states following a successfully negotiated agreement on the final status issues.
Regardless of whether Yasser Arafat truly intended to achieve peace with Israel, he never enjoyed the mobilized support of the Arab states, let alone the United States and Israel. Mahmoud Abbas does. The Arab states are providing Abbas with the kind of backing and legitimacy to negotiate with Israel on all of the sensitive final status issues that he will need in order to conclude a historic agreement. This is particularly significant given the political split of the Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza.
Third, the Palestinians are invested in building the foundation for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians have been plagued in previous negotiation efforts by poor governance and widespread corruption. While concerning issues remain, the progress of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad to establish the infrastructure for a future state - like the aforementioned security advancements - distinguishes these negotiations from previous ones. The success of the state-building effort to this point and the growth of the West Bank economy lends credibility to the moderate leadership of Abbas and Fayyad and their ability to govern a viable, contiguous state, should the political process enable one to be established. Their efforts should also give Israelis added confidence that they would be establishing a conflict-ending agreement with a responsible neighbor.
Fourth, the Netanyahu government has been calling for negotiations for months, repeatedly stating that an agreement could be reached quickly if negotiated in good faith. The Administration now has a chance to test them on their word.
The make-up of the Israeli government presents both a challenge and an advantage to the renewed talks. The fact that this is a largely right-wing government intended to provide Israel with essential guarantees on security could bolster confidence among the Israeli public for an agreement, should one be achieved. This would remain true even if the government were at some point to replace Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party with Tzipi Livni's Kadima party. Just as the Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin secured a peace agreement with Egypt, so too might the current Likud Prime Minister secure the elusive peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Finally, the White House has pledged to be actively engaged and bridge the gaps when necessary. The failed Annapolis process proved that Israelis and Palestinians need the United States to be at the negotiating table in order to help the parties bridge the gaps.
Active engagement by the United States does not just require bridging proposals, but also reminding the parties of the interests at stake. To Israelis, concluding an agreement with the Palestinians would certainly help amplify efforts to mobilize the international community to counter the threat from Iran. To Palestinians, a viable and secure state can only come about through negotiations.
However, even with these various important ingredients in place, there remains a missing one that is vital to the success of direct talks: trust. Without trust between the parties - or in the United States' leadership - the current effort will undoubtedly fail. Building this trust, beginning with navigating the parties past the September 26th deadline of Israel's settlement moratorium, is clearly the United States' most pressing challenge in the weeks ahead. But the foundation to succeed in doing so is beginning to be put into place. The Administration deserves some credit for laying it.
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