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Barely months into talks, will the freeze freeze a peace deal?

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

September 21, 2010 | 3:00 pm

When the fat lady sings on Sept. 26, it may only be an intermission.

That’s the word from an array of Mideast experts across the political spectrum. They are predicting that the seeming intractability between Israel and the Palestinians over whether Israel extends a settlement moratorium beyond its end date will not scuttle the peace talks.

Instead, the observers say, the sides are likely employing the brinksmanship that has come to characterize Middle East peacemaking.

“Is this is a last-minute minuet before a compromise on both sides?” asked Steve Rosen, the former director of foreign policy at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I don’t see the kind of anxiety you would associate with a collapse. They seem to be acting with something up their sleeve.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, also saw compromise in the offing.

“Neither party can afford to be seen as scuttling the talks,” he said.

Israelis and Palestinians both are speaking—off the record, at least—in terms of an imminent threat of rupture, just weeks after direct negotiations restarted. Such talk begs the question of why the Obama administration relaunched the talks with much fanfare if the sides were not ready to go.

“It’s almost inconceivable that the administration would have gone down this road with all the hype without push and pull for both sides” on the settlement issue, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, and now a fellow at The Woodrow Wilson Center.

Miller noted the praise lavished by Obama on the negotiators and the inclusion of the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in the launch of the talks.

If the deadline scuttles the talks, he said, “it will go down as being one of the more boneheaded plays in the history of negotiations.”

Miller said he believes that the sides were bluffing when they hinted—or outright said—no compromise was possible.

Each side has sent out mixed signals. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said last week that there was “no choice” but to go ahead with talks, before meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the same time, his aides were leaking to the media that continuing the talks depended on an extension of the moratorium on Israeli construction in the settlements.

Israeli officials have suggested that they are preparing some kind of extension by telling American Jewish groups that they will need their backing when the Israeli settlement movement reacts adversely to a building freeze beyond Sept. 26.

On the other hand, in a conference call Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention the possibility of a compromise. And his top aide, Ron Dermer, made it sound as if Israeli officials were bracing for a period of tensions over the settlement issue.

“We might have to agree to disagree for the next few months,” Dermer said on the issue of settlements. The carrot for the Palestinians, he said, was a final-status agreement that would put both sides past the settlement issue.

The question is how to get past the looming Sept. 26 date—or at least Sept. 30, when Israel’s Sukkot holidays end and the construction industry returns to work.

Ibish predicted that Abbas and his negotiators could live with Israel moving ahead with the building starts that have been put on hold for 10 months, when Netanyahu imposed the moratorium—as many as 2,000, according to an Americans for Peace Now analysis—but only if the Netanyahu government did not launch major new projects.

“Whatever the Israelis say, no one is going to believe it because of the grandfathering built in” to the moratorium, Ibish said. “What’s important that the Israelis don’t do anything further to radically alter the landscape.”

That would include holding back on major starts outside the “consensus areas,” settlement blocks adjacent to Israel that are likely to be incorporated in a final deal in exchange for land swaps. According to this view, it would also mean no building in a corridor between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim that would choke off the main north-south route; no land appropriations; and no building in eastern Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods.

Rosen, who now directs the Middle East Forum’s Washington project, said an out may be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader who is now in Washington and New York to meet with U.S. and United Nations officials.

As defense minister, Barak has veto over new initiatives: He could nix them while the Palestinians look the other way regarding settlement projects already in the pipeline. At the same time, Barak’s reputation as a go-it-alone dove could give Netanyahu cover with settlers. The prime minister could tell hawks that Barak is slightly out of control.

Meantime, each side is trying to extract as much as it can or concede as little as possible before talks continue, said Scott Lasensky, an analyst with the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace who tracks the region.

“Brinksmanship is a hallmark of Arab-Israeli negotiation. There’s no doubt the question will go to the last minute with uncertainty,” he said. “There’s been some good will, there’s been a warming of ties, everyone has an interest in making sure that this is renewed.”

Brinksmanship, on the other hand, often develops a momentum of its own, and there’s a chance it could scuttle the talks by the deadline, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

The risk now, Makovsky said, was that with the talks still in their early stages, the sides were more beholden to hard-line constituencies than they were to a breakthrough.

“They don’t know if a deal is reachable, so why alienate your constituencies if a deal isn’t reachable yet,” he said.

Stephen P. Cohen, another longtime Middle East watcher and backer of an Israeli-Palestinian deal who has consulted with members of the Obama foreign policy team, said the administration’s leverage was the imminence of a permanent-status deal.

“I think Bibi [Netanyahu] wants to make a substantive agreement that would convince Abu Mazen [Abbas] that it’s worth staying even though he hasn’t renewed the settlement freeze because the substantive agreement allows Abu Mazen to stay,” said Cohen, the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development.

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