Excessive pessimism on peace talks

Robert A. Cohn

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In years past, when announcements were made regarding high-level Middle East peace talks, commentators and pundits in the United States and worldwide applauded the latest “breakthrough.” This previous pattern is in sharp contrast to the almost universal, and in my opinion, excessive pessimism that has greeted last week’s announcement that direct, face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will resume with a White House dinner hosted by President Barack Obama. 

The guest list will include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, plus Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, representing the two major Arab states which have existing and enduring peace treaties with Israel.

The talks also have the blessing of the 22-member League of Arab States and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is the special envoy for the “Quartet” of parties seeking to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace: the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

The announcement was met with an immediate and almost universal skepticism and pessimism by much of the mainstream media. Ethan Bronner in a news analysis piece in The New York Times (Aug. 21) was headlined: “Mideast Talks: Scant Hopes For the Start; Fearing 2 Sides Can’t or Won’t Strike Deal.” Another piece by Sheera Frenkel and Margaret Yalev for the McClatchy Newspapers which appeared on page one of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the same day, was headlined “New Mideast talks stir old pessimism,” with the sub-head, “Israeli leader faces severe constraints in negotiations with Palestinians.”

To be sure, there are ample reasons for at least some skepticism that the talks will succeed. Hopes have been raised and dashed countless times since September 1993, when then President Bill Clinton hosted a signing ceremony on the south lawn of the White House at which the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitazhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the Declaration of Principles based on the back-channel Oslo Accords.

Under that agreement the PLO explicitly recognized the State of Israel, and Israel recognized the PLO as the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and each side pledged to seek peace based on a two-state solution of the Jewish State of Israel living side-by-side in peace and security with an independent Arab State of Palestine.

After the tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the momentum towards a settlement was interrupted. By the time Clinton was able to host another attempt at Camp David in July 2000, Arafat had made it clear that he preferred a continuation of terrorism to achieving peace. Arafat spurned the generous offer proposed by Clinton and accepted by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which would have given Arafat an independent state with all of the Gaza Strip, 98 percent of the West Bank, shared administration of Jerusalem and even shared administration of the Temple Mount. Instead of accepting the agreement, Arafat stormed out of the talks, went back to Ramallah and fomented the so-called “Second Intifada,” which was to cost the lives of 1,000 Israelis and 2,500 Palestinians in suicide bombings, shootings and other acts of violence until Arafat’s death four years later.

So what happens now? It has been pointed out by commentators of all stripes and outlooks that each of the three major leaders, Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas face serious challenges going into the newest round of talks. Obama’s approval ratings continue to sink amid worries about Iran’s determination to go forward with developing nuclear weapons and the continued war in Afghanistan, despite the formal end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by the end of this month. Abbas lost control of the Gaza Strip to the terrorist group Hamas in elections five years ago, followed by a violent coup. He seems sincere and well-intentioned in his renunciation of violence and desire to achieve peace, but serious doubts remain as to his credibility on the “Arab street,” and his ability to make and politically survive the tough decisions he will have to make to achieve a deal. As to Netanyahu, his center-right Likud-led coalition includes the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu Party, whose members have threatened to force a collapse of Netanyahu’s government if he makes too many concessions to the Palestinians regarding a possible continued partial freeze on new Jewish settlements and on territorial concessions.

But the very challenges and apparent “weaknesses” among the three major leaders also offers an opportunity for real progress. President Obama could use the political and diplomatic boost of a successful outcome between Israel and the Palestinians. Abbas could become the first President of an independent Palestinian State, which would assure his place in history. And Bibi Netanyahu, the first sitting Likud Party Prime Minister to embrace a two-state solution could be the very “hard-liner” who could make a deal with the Palestinians and bring the center and right together. If necessary, Bibi could again invited the centrist Kadima Party, led by former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to join his coalition to assure the backing of the Israeli Cabinet and Knesset for any deal that might be achieved.

Let me make another modest proposal: immediate recognition of the “Palestinian Authority” as the independent State of Palestine, with borders that are yet to be determined. All three major Israeli parties agree that there should be an independent Palestine and two-state solution; so does the League of Arab States, along with the Quartet, along with the direct backing of Egypt and Jordan. Why not just go ahead and recognize the current Palestinian Authority as the State of Palestine and admit the new nation to the United Nations?

This would elevate the talks between Israel and Palestine to negotiations between co-equal nation-states instead of between an independent Jewish State and an amorphous “Authority.”

Winston Churchill, who led the British and inspired its Allies during World War II, was also an advocate of diplomacy. “To ‘jaw-jaw’ is better than to war-war,” he said during a Washington visit during the Eisenhower Administration. Even if the latest attempt at peace talks does not immediately succeed, it is far healthier for regional and global stability for direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians go forward, with the full backing of the United States, Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League.

Ironically, the talks are slated to begin on September 2 at the White House, 65 years to the day after the Japanese surrender to the United States and its Allies aboard the battleship Missouri. As we approach the Jewish High Holidays, the prospect of resumed peace talks offers a basis for both hope and prayers that they lead to a successful conclusion.

As our prayer book says, “Grant us peace, Thy most precious gift, O Thou Eternal Source of Peace!” And let us all say, Amen!