Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have begun under a justifiable cloud of doubt. Each side knows it, their peoples know it, the international and even Western media know it.
But having sipped Washington’s energy drink concocted by US Secretary of State HIllary Clinton, an upbeat attitude can be expected from all parties in the month ahead. Whoever blinks first will be ostracized as the enemy of peace and the skeptical Palestinians have, according to the Israeli press, suddenly U-turned.
One US line is more difficult to argue against than the bulk of the script; in fact, as a truism, there’s no reason to. Clinton, President Barack Obama, and other State Department officials, while optimistic of reaching an agreement within one year, simultaneously warn that time is running out on a two-state solution. Talk of violence is high after Hamas’s declaration of war with 13 other Palestinian groups. Now is a good time for peace, both for a region walking on glass and a White House desperate for an indisputable foreign policy victory, because the time is always now and never.
So why doesn’t this urgency appear to be translating in direct negotiations?
Of the many reasons to question the possibility of reaching an agreement, two have combined to pose the first major hurdle for the White House. In the short-term Israeli settlements in the West Bank threaten to derail negotiations on September 26th, when Israel’s “freeze” expires (incremental construction is ongoing). Direct negotiations could grind to a halt if a long-term flaw isn’t corrected in the near future: America must adopt an equal mediating position to weigh a lasting peace in the region.
Forcing PA President Mahmoud Abbas to sign on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s terms, after Washington already coerced Abbas to negotiate without preconditions, will result in an unbalanced agreement and failed implementation.
With Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat once more raising the issue of settlements, Netanyahu refused to answer reporters’ questions except for saying, “You want headlines, I want an agreement.” US officials have kept similarly quiet on details. But Netanyahu ruled out extending the settlement freeze on the eve of the White House’s summit, arguing that the issue should be treated like every other final status issue and implemented at the conclusion of an agreement. Though he could be bluffing, many factors including mobilized settlers are likely to entrench his position.
That leaves America to find a solution in 22 days, assuming the Palestinians really do cancel direct talks.
"Israelis claim that they can't continue the settlement freeze while we say that we can’t continue with negotiations if settlement building continues," said Nabil Shaath, a second Palestinian negotiations. "We will continue to work seriously until the end of the month."
Disturbing signs indicate September could be the only month before another interruption in negotiations. A great deal of work takes place behind the scenes and in-between formal meetings, but, from an outside perspective, the urgency for resolving the settlement issue appears lacking. Bi-weekly meetings between Israel and the PA are scheduled to begin on September 14th in Sharm al-Sheikh, leaving only 12 days and three or four meetings to find a compromise to a still intractable problem. Much of the framework has been established during past negotiations, leaving decisions to be made, yet this time period seems insufficient to accomplish the task when Israeli settlers are building right now.
Neither Israel nor the PA will presumably back down from their settlement positions. "We know his position and he knows our position,” Erekat said of Netanyahu, and that’s where America comes in - but will it come through? Speaking to Israeli and Palestinian media, Clinton highlighted the opportunity for peace while playing each sides’ demographics against the other. Then, while imploring Israelis and Palestinians to improve conditions on the ground, she overtly dodged the settlement issue.
"So the checkpoints, the roadblocks, all of the daily challenges that we know affect the Palestinians, are certainly on the agenda," Clinton assured. "I think the political negotiations need to be matched with changes on the ground, and confidence-building and interactions between Israelis and Palestinians."
Sounds like America won’t be pressing for a settlement extension. How much confidence can Palestinians have in US mediation if Israel continues getting its way?