Level of US role in peace talks key to success

The Obama administration will relaunch direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks next week, ready to intervene as needed in what analysts hope will mean unprecedented US engagement and pressure.

By (AFP)

Published: Sun 29 Aug 2010, 8:38 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 5:53 AM

The new negotiations starting Thursday in Washington will follow others that analysts say often failed because the United States, the main broker, was too slow or reluctant to intervene with its own ideas to break deadlocks.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell promised on August 20 that President Barack Obama’s administration, which has listed Middle East peace as a priority since the president took office last year, will be active in the new talks.

“We will be active and sustained partners, although we recognize that this is a bilateral negotiation, and we have indicated to both parties that, as necessary and appropriate, we will offer bridging proposals,” Mitchell said.

For Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, how much the Obama administration is willing to intervene will be the “single most important indicator” of the viability of this round of talks.

“We know from past experience and recent experience that if we leave these two sides alone there’s no way they’re going to bridge their differences,” the Princeton University professor told AFP.

“So the only difference is going to be whether or not the United States puts forward ideas.

“We were supposed to do it in the proximity talks but we didn’t and now the question is will we do it in the direct talks?”

The Israelis and Palestinians have produced no tangible signs of progress since they began indirect, or proximity talks in May for which Mitchell shuttled between the parties.

Under US pressure, Mahmud Abbas, the president of the US-backed Palestinian Authority, finally agreed to attend the direct talks after abandoning his demand that Israel first halt all settlement activity.

Last November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government imposed a 10-month moratorium on new settlements in the West Bank, but not in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

The moratorium expires on September 26 unless Israel renews it.

“It’s in the administration’s interest to get these talks started and on a very fast track to see how much progress can be made by September 26 in order to deal with that date more effectively,” Kurtzer said.

The peace talks are designed to tackle the core issues of security for Israel, the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Analyst Robert Danin said Mitchell will need to use “very deft diplomacy” to deal with Netanyahu’s reluctance to renew the moratorium and Abbas’s threat to abandon the talks if settlements resume.

“It’s very difficult to square those two positions, but not impossible,” said Danin, a former deputy US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

Netanyahu and Abbas meanwhile will both have to demonstrate they are willing to live with an “imperfect outcome” to keep the new talks going, according to Danin

As the talks open this week, Danin said, Mitchell’s first task will be to “build a certain degree of trust” between the two leaders.

Danin said the talks could mark “a new level of engagement that we’ve not seen before” if Mitchell and his team, backed by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, present detailed bridging proposals for resolving long-standing disputes in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He said both sides must be prepared to see Obama “exerting strong influence” to push the direct talks off the ground.

Michele Dunne, a former White House and State Department Middle East specialist, said direct US involvement in the negotiations has slowly increased in the last two decades.

“The lever the US can employ is the degree of US involvement in the talks,” added the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst.

“A tactic I think the United States will be using continuously is... calibrating and threatening either more US withdrawal or more US involvement.”

The Palestinians tend to favor Washington playing the role of broker to back their demands, while the Israelis tend to resist US interference.

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