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George Mitchell Lays Groundwork as Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Talks

4 years ago
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If there were no conflict, Ramallah and Jerusalem would be considered neighboring towns. By car, they lie only 16 miles apart; even fewer as the crow flies. The distance might as well be an ocean.

Former Sen. George Mitchell
must be tired. He's swum this ocean's length already, dozens of times.

Over the last weeks Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, a diplomat decorated for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process, has shuttled back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah, working to lay the groundwork allowing mediated talks to begin between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. All of that work was background -- negotiations to enable negotiations to begin. What will be discussed, or set aside? Jerusalem. Refugees. Borders. Security. Water rights. The Americans want the Palestinians and Israelis to come back to the table. The U.S. champions restarting the path to a comprehensive peace agreement, a goal many a negotiator has failed at establishing, even those who have begun from an easier starting block.

And then, finally, this week the actual "proximity" talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, brokered by Mitchell, began. That means Netanyahu and Abbas are not sitting next to each other, or even in the same room. They speak through Mitchell. They will make demands and they will listen to demands, all brokered through a third set of ears. It will not be easy, even in this enforced structure, a nursery school for world leaders. There will be means to thwart the fragile success of talks. Nothing is a given.

The principles have been here before. Henry Kissinger perfected the art of the go-between in the 1970s. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Kissinger ran interference between the Israelis and the Arab World. Such so-called "Shuttle Diplomacy" became Kissinger's signature; proximity talks remained the norm through the Sinai Interim Agreement and the peace agreement, brokered at Camp David by President Carter, signed between Egypt and Israel; marked, famously, by the Begin-Sadat handshake, in 1979.

In 1991 the Israelis and Palestinians began to, carefully, distrustfully, meet in person, beginning at a conference in Madrid that year and then again in Oslo in 1993. Though slow, for many years, progress seemed possible. (For a good rundown of all the various agreements throughout the 1990s, including the talks at Wye River, Sharm el-Sheik, the Hebron Agreement, and more, read this primer from "Frontline" at PBS). Even through the first year of this century, there was a sense that "final status" agreements might be agreed upon. There was the slip-through-our-fingers moment at Camp David II, during the waning days of President Clinton in 2000. Later, against the backdrop of the beginning of the second intifada, in Taba, Egypt, plans were drawn up that brushed up against final status agreements but fell apart over questions of refugee status.

"The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement, and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli elections," a joint declaration optimistically declared, after the Taba talks fell apart.

But then the ground shifted once more: Ariel Sharon was elected, defeating the more peace-oriented Ehud Barak, brutal terror attacks against Israeli civilians escalated, land for peace negotiations faltered, and a new American administration came into office that took a step back on active peace brokering. Eight years would follow, with a Bush administration that had decided the road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad (in other words, that attacking Iraq would lead to peace and stability in the region. It didn't). In those years, Israel pulled out of Gaza, Hamas was democratically elected in Gaza, and the killings, on both sides, continued. For all intents and purposes, the peace process was at a halt. As the Bush years came to a close, there was a belated turning to the Near East, without much to show for it. With the 2008 election, hope for a new beginning was high. But despite bold promises to reinvigorate talks in the first 16 months of the Obama administration, progress has been slow. More than a year passed with no dialogue at all.

That is how the United States finds itself in this position: More than 30 years post-Kissinger, and after 19 years of face-to-face negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are once again speaking through an American interlocutor. All of which means the United States has a great deal to gain and a great deal to lose in this equation. "One question we don't ask is how is the United States being perceived [by] the rest of the world through this process? Because whatever process we engage in it has to be something that makes us look stronger. That makes us look better. A process by which we look weak, or incompetent, or we don't know what we're doing – that has negative knockoff effects elsewhere," explains Amjad Atallah, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

Part of the question is intention on the part of all three parties. "If the United States is approaching peace between Israel and the Arab world as a charitable effort, to help two well-meaning parties seeking to find what they disagree on and they need a third party to hand hold and feel good -- that's 1990," explains Atallah. "That's Rabin and Arafat coming to D.C. and saying to Clinton, 'We want you to negotiate a deal.' Then the president can say, 'That's fantastic.' There is no political capital expended. They have worked out an agreement. That's not at all where we are right now. So my concern is that the Mitchell approach, as it were, is reminiscent of a period in time when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat were attempting to short cut multiparty talks and conclude an agreement on their own which would maximize benefits to each of them."

Some believe there is an opportunity that lies in indirect conversation, a process which from the outside can easily look retrogressive. "It is not a bad thing to have a third party to modulate and calibrate which issues are brought up, and make sure there is not an immediate breakdown which would set things back far further then they are now," said Robert Malley, program director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, to that end, Gershon Baskin, CEO of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, recently wrote in the Jerusalem Post: "Proximity talks mean that George Mitchell is completely in charge of the process. The mediator carries the message. The mediator can also shape and frame the message; the mediator drafts the text. In theory, this is actually very positive. Israelis and Palestinians often misunderstand each other. They speak in code and have a full range of sensitivities that escape the awareness and understanding of the other side. Often words and messages are misconstrued . . . In all the years of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, there has never been a strong, impartial mediator."

Says William Zartman, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and an expert on conflict resolution, "Indirect talks have been quite productive in the past, particularly under Kissinger. They worked at Camp David with President Carter." That said, he qualifies, "At some point they have to be direct. At some point the parties have to confront each other on the basis of things they have agreed to indirectly and have left un-agreed to as yet. So [indirect talks are] merely an introduction to see how flexible they are and how flexible they can be, to scout out the red lines, the 'no, no' areas of their positions."

The problem, Zartman points out, is that the situation has only worsened. The Palestinian delegation is only representing the Fatah party, and not Hamas. Netanyahu is rumored to be unable, due in part to his coalition and in part to his own constitution, to broker an agreement. Nor have the Israelis agreed to territorial concessions. Complicating the picture is that no one seems to exactly know if "everything is on the table" or nothing. And yet, "One has to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. To get anywhere means the president needs to weigh in strongly and not simply in pushing the parties, but also in comforting the parties that he is not going to sell them out." Zartman believes the Obama administration missed an early chance. "Instead of reassuring Israelis that reaching out a hand to Palestinians did not mean neglect for Israel, Israel is now convinced they will be sold out." After the Cairo speech, the Obama administration lost ground on both sides, by not pushing forward more quickly even as he walked a fine line in reassuring our traditional ally, Israel, and the Arab world.

And yet the picture is not all gloom and doom. "Anyone who is realistic is not going to be optimistic about the imminence of peace in the Middle East. It is more difficult than it has been in the last 20 years. [Yet] I think there are some factors that are relatively new that offer some hope," says James Dobbins, director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, at the Rand Corporation. "One is that the Israeli public are beginning to confront, and indeed the international community is beginning to confront, the prospect of this never being settled and the consequences for Israeli democracy of a situation in which they are in permanent occupation of another people.

"Another change is that you have an administration that has established that this is a priority from the beginning, rather than waiting until end of eight years to do something."

In the meantime, the core issues remain and rankle. What will happen to the building of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem? Vice President Biden was humiliated a few weeks back to discover that approval for more building had been given just as he arrived to reassure Israelis of American support. What will happen to security questions for Israelis, should they pull out of the West Bank? And what of the population that lives there now, even if no new building occurs? Will Jerusalem be divided? Will borders be established?

These are questions that have kept leaders awake since Henry Kissinger. And yet, maybe their success will be in this indirect conversation. Many strategists privately acknowledge that It's politically easier for both sides to agree to recommendations and demands of the Americans than to each other. It may be a negative starting point, but at least its a start. Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J-Street, the advocacy organization which bills itself as "pro-Israel, pro-Peace," sees this as a framing question.

"We are trying to push back against notion that . . . proximity talks are regressive," he said. "The issue is whether the substantive issues are on the table and real efforts are made to resolve them and to end the conflict." To quibble over direct and indirect talks, at this point, he explained is "like arguing about the shape of the table. Let's not spend our time arguing about the shape of the table or the shape of the talks."

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