Jul 30, 2013 | 10:15 GMT

7 mins read

The Latest Attempt at Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

A four-month endeavor by the United States to restart direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians has succeeded in bringing both sides to the table, but all sides are more concerned with their own pursuits than with reaching a comprehensive peace agreement. Matters that have troubled negotiators for decades — final status issues such as borders, Palestinian refugees' right of return and the status of Jerusalem — are compounded by political considerations working against an agreement.

The United States needs a low-cost foreign policy victory, particularly one in the Middle East, at a time when Washington is reorienting its international focus. Israel has joined the talks partly in response to U.S. pressure and partly in pursuit of strategic opportunities. And the relatively weaker Fatah is in no position to withstand U.S. and Arab League pressure to return to talks. However, both sides' willingness to restart negotiations should not be mistaken for a meaningful attempt at reconciliation.

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's special envoy, Isaac Molho, on July 29 met with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and President Mahmoud Abbas' adviser, Mohammad Shtayyeh. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the group for informal talks at the State Department, and formal talks will take place July 30. Kerry also announced July 29 that former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk will serve as Washington's Middle East peace envoy.

The U.S. Motivation

The United States has pushed for these negotiations since President Barack Obama visited Israel in March and exhorted Israelis in a speech to pursue peace with the Palestinians. Since Obama's visit, Kerry has visited the Middle East six times in order to prod both sides to return to the negotiating table.

Recognizing its own limitations and its need to devote attention to other parts of the world, the United States is trying to shift its strategy in the Middle East, hoping to rely more on regional alignments and eschewing direct intervention in the region's conflicts. The administration has continued to resist involvement in the Syrian civil war beyond sending limited weapons to the rebels. Washington has also kept fairly quiet about the Egyptian military coup that removed democratically elected former President Mohammed Morsi from office, instead prioritizing its strategic relationship with the Egyptian military. Washington brokered an Israeli apology for the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in hopes that ties between Israel and Turkey would be repaired, and while reconciliation negotiations have stalled, there has been evidence of cooperation behind the scenes between the Turks and Israelis. Finally, despite budget cuts, the United States has continued to support its regional allies; for example, Washington on July 26 decided to boost its annual aid to Jordan to $1 billion.

Getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table is part of this strategy. It is a low-cost attempt by the administration to achieve a foreign policy victory and demonstrate that the United States still has influence in the Middle East, even while it focuses elsewhere. But although Washington can force both sides to the negotiating table, it cannot conclude an agreement or control the aftermath — after all, the second Intifada followed the failure of Camp David II — and the unintended consequences of talks should they fail are impossible to predict.

Pressure and Opportunities

Netanyahu has little interest in direct negotiations with the Palestinians. The prime minister's speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009 was the first time he indicated his support for a Palestinian state, and Netanyahu has continued to stand fast on key issues such as Jerusalem and the refugees' right to return. Netanyahu's control of his own Likud party has declined in recent years, and though his Cabinet on July 28 approved the release of 104 pre-Oslo prisoners as part of the Palestinians' preconditions for talks, his comparatively dovish maneuvers could make him politically vulnerable within his own party. Two of the eight Cabinet members from Likud voted against the prisoner release, and two others abstained.

However, Netanyahu is making contingency plans. While the prisoner release captured most of the media attention, the Cabinet also approved a law July 28 requiring a national referendum if Israel were to relinquish any territory in a treaty, effectively shielding Netanyahu from direct blame and also subverting the legitimacy of Livni, an old political rival, in negotiations. And while Netanyahu's credibility within his party will suffer for pushing forward the talks, a majority of the Knesset favors a peace deal, and the Labor Party has already gone on record as saying it would join the coalition if it meant pursuing negotiations. The Labor Party's stance eliminates some of the risk that the government would collapse should anti-negotiation parties such as Jewish Home resign. Netanyahu will have to worry about elections in four years, but his position as prime minister is safe for now.

Despite opposition within his own party, Netanyahu cannot resist U.S. pressure. It was pressure from Washington that forced his hand in issuing an apology to Turkey in March, and the same pressure is pushing him to the negotiating table now. The United States is the ultimate guarantor of Israel's national security and underwrites a portion of its national defense. With Iran's nuclear development program still casting a shadow on the region, that reality has never been more salient.

Furthermore, Netanyahu suffered a political embarrassment June 30 when the European Union issued a directive that forbade members from funding or cooperating with entities operating in East Jerusalem. All of these factors underscore the political isolation Israel would have risked had it not consented to the prisoner release.

Still, at a broader, strategic level, the agreement to return to talks is more expedient now than it has been in recent years for Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cycles between periods of peace negotiations and low-level military conflict. Israel was concerned by the ascension of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, to the Egyptian presidency, both for fear that Israel's treaty with Egypt might be called into question and because of the boost it gave Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But the Egyptian military has removed Morsi, and furthermore, it has dispatched military assets to address militancy in the Sinai Peninsula. In so doing, Egypt has effectively sealed off the Gaza Strip. Dealing with Abbas and potentially offering tangible concessions to Fatah is one way Israel can worsen Hamas' deteriorating position. (It could also provoke Hamas, something that would make the Palestinians look disjointed and undermine negotiations from the start.)

With its southern border stabilized and with Hezbollah firmly embroiled in the Syrian civil war, Israel is in a relatively comfortable situation. To be sure, there are still threats on its borders, but they are less severe than they have been in recent years. By entering negotiations, Israel has boosted its international legitimacy and demonstrated to the United States that it is a cooperative ally. Further, the Israeli government now possesses a measure of plausible deniability — if negotiations fail, Netanyahu will be able to point to the prisoner release as evidence of Israel's good intentions.

The Palestinian Side

Unlike the Israelis, Abbas brings relatively little influence to bear on this round of diplomacy. At first Abbas insisted on three preconditions: a return to the 1967 borders, a settlement freeze and a prisoner release. Only the last precondition has been unequivocally met.

Not only did it take Kerry six visits to get Abbas to agree to negotiations, but Kerry also reportedly threatened to remove U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if Abbas refused. The Arab League, another important Palestinian sponsor, has also pushed for the resumption of talks. For example, it endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 at an April 17 news conference at the White House.

Fatah itself has little to gain from negotiations; it is already considered weak, corrupt and inefficient because of its failure to achieve Palestinian self-determination through diplomatic channels. The long-stalled reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas further calls into question the potential efficacy of these Israeli-Palestinian consultations. Hamas' credibility still derives from its status as a resistance movement against Israel, and its interests are not aligned with those of Fatah, especially after Hamas lost its close political ally in Cairo. Hamas' absence from the talks and its criticism of Fatah further hollow the potential for any kind of comprehensive settlement in which security can be meaningfully negotiated.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more a symbol than an issue of geopolitical gravity. Historically, the conflict has been used by external powers for regional competition as much as it has been about the actual issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians, and the latest batch of talks are no different. While conditions are sufficient for negotiations, a host of political constraints combined with complex final status issues will prevent these talks from being anything more than a development of interim and incremental changes at best and, at worst, a political show.

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