Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why The Peace Talks Won't Bring Peace

It's depressing to have to express pessimism about peace talks. Yet the problems which are emerging with this latest round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, set to begin in September, are ones which have been encountered before, and ones the parties are ignoring. While I certainly hope to be proven wrong, a substantial peace deal is unlikely between Netanyahu and Abbas because:

1) Neither side wants to be there. Netanyahu and Abbas are both participating in talks primarily to further engagement with the United States, not to make peace with each other. In 1979, there was a mutual desire between Begin and Sadat to cut a deal following the Yom Kippur War. In 1993, the aftermath of the first Intifada created pressure on Rabin and Arafat to cut a deal, which the U.S. mediated. But in this case, Netanyahu has simply calculated that the US-Israel relationship is too important to jeopardize any further and has nothing to lose by talking. Short of near-total agreement to his demands, Netanyahu has little to gain politically from a peace deal. Abbas is likely to get bogged down with the Israelis in negotiations, as his negotiating team is famous for its maximalist positions. The Palestinians are also likely to insist on dealing with Gaza and the West Bank as one, even though they are separate for all intensive purposes. From the American side, despite strong pressure from George Mitchell, Secretary Clinton, and the State Dept., President Obama has not made Middle East peace talks an administration priority a-la-Carter in 1979 or even Clinton in 1993. Short of pressure from the President of the United States, a deal is unlikely. And Obama is unlikely to put significant pressure on Israel two months before midterm elections.

2) The parties are dealing with violent extremists by ignoring them. Just because after a year and a half of talking about talking, both sides are coming to the table doesn't mean extremism has disappeared. Hamas, the radical Settlers, and extremists on all sides are watching the unfolding events closely [case in point]. These camps do not negotiate. But the U.S. and both negotiation parties have not taken preemptive action of any kind to mitigate the danger to peace talks these groups pose. Extremists in Israel and the Palestinian territories will wait until a critical moment in the negotiations to strike. At that point, the victimized side will withdraw from talks, asking how a side which has done XYZ could possibly want peace. The threshold for violence is still far too low for a peace deal.

Failure of peace talks will deal a blow to the already pessimistic citizens of the Middle East. In some sense, the money being spent on the peace talks might have been better spent on Palestinian infrastructure, or fostering IDF-Palestinian Security Forces cooperation. They might have been better spent on supporting non-partisan pro-peace social movements in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Investments like these usually garner less press. However, they are more effective at creating conditions in the Middle East which maximize the abilities and freedoms of citizens and promote the U.S. interests of liberal values, economic growth, and regional stability.

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