x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

US optimism over stalled peace talks puzzles insiders

As Israel declines to extend settlements building ban and Palestinians halt talks, US officials maintain that a resolution of core issues is possible within the deadline set by Obama.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has acknowledged that the peace process is 'fragile', but some say that is wildly optimistic.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has acknowledged that the peace process is 'fragile', but some say that is wildly optimistic.

WASHINGTON // With a form of negotiation-through-media replacing direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis, many analysts say the outlook for the stalled US-led process is bleak.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, acknowledged in an interview with ABC on Thursday, that the process is "fragile". Nonetheless, US officials maintain that a resolution of core issues is possible in the one-year timeframe that the US president, Barack Obama, outlined from the beginning.

"We believe, based on the discussions that have been done so far, that there actually is the opportunity to resolve this conflict once and for all," Phillip Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said on Tuesday.

But few observers in Washington share that optimism. "I'm as puzzled as anyone," said Steven Cook, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's hard to imagine that one would be truly optimistic given the turn of events."

This turn of events since direct negotiations began have prompted the Palestinians to halt the talks after Israel resisted US pressure to extend a partial building moratorium. The ban itself had been a concession to the US.

"It strikes me as curious that the administration knew going into this in early September that weeks later they would have this deadlock, yet they went forward," Mr Cook said. "They were pulling teeth to get a 10-month freeze, why did they think they would be able to renew it in September?"

Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, then muddied the waters further by making Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a precondition for even entertaining an extension, a demand the Palestinians immediately rejected.

To Palestinians, such recognition would not only predetermine the refugee issue, it would also leave a question mark over the status of the 20 per cent of Israel's population that is non-Jewish.

It was a demand that seemed to take US officials by surprise. It certainly seemed to take Mr Crowley by surprise on Tuesday, when he had to be asked five times whether the US would accept that demand before he finally concluded that "we recognise that Israel is, as it says itself, is a Jewish state, yes."

It would not be the first time that Israeli obduracy has crept up on the administration, observers say.

Amy Spitalnick of J-Street, a pro-Israeli American Jewish organisation that has strongly supported the Obama administration's mediation efforts, including the call to freeze settlement construction, said: "I don't think the administration necessarily expected [Israel's resistance on the moratorium] or this idea of recognising Israel as a democratic, Jewish state."

Ms Spitalnick suggested that the administration's desire to conclude a peace agreement in a year was not so much fuelled by optimism as by necessity.

"I think this administration understands the urgency of the situation. It understands that a few years from now a two-state solution may no longer be viable."

She also argued that there was cause for optimism since the Obama administration from the outset had made Palestinian-Israeli peace a priority and had engaged "thoughtfully and intensely". The key now, she added, was "to keep the parties at the table and set a border so that within those borders, both Israelis and Palestinians can grow to their hearts' content."

Indeed, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's response to Israel's ultimatum was to ask for a map with borders. And the suggestion that the United States might step in with its own proposals, including on borders, would not be out of keeping with the administration's modus operandi so far. But it would be a risky strategy, Mr Cook said, not least with the Democratic Party set to lose a considerable number of seats in Congress in November's elections.

Mr Cook said: "There are considerable risks for the administration with presenting its own plans. One side or the other could simply reject the proposals as not serving their political needs. And if things go as we think they are going in November … there is this whole idea that no one wants to embarrass the president. But does it really matter if you have a greatly weakened president?"

Indeed, Washington's sway over the parties may already have diminished. That is partly because the situation on the ground has deteriorated over the two decades since the Oslo agreement was signed, with an explosion in the number of settlers and settlements in occupied territory and a growing radicalisation on both sides.

James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, a Washington-based non-profit organisation, said: "There was a time when what happened in Washington mattered. My sense, though, is that the patient is too far gone, the pathologies that have infected both Israeli and Palestinian politics is such that even the strongest [US] leadership will have difficulty at this time."

Moreover, Mr Zogby, a columnist for The National, said that although he did not doubt Mr Obama's intentions, the president had been "blindsided" by Israel. "The Israelis played him on settlements and they've continued to play him," he said.

As Mr Zogby pointed out, even Mr Obama has acknowledged that "he was not prepared for how difficult this would be".