What Comes After Mideast Talks Draw a Blank?

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Thaer Ganaim / PPO / Getty Images

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, walks with U.S. envoy George Mitchell in Ramallah on April 23, 2010

After months of arm wrestling over terms and conditions, the Obama Administration has finally gotten its Israeli-Palestinian "proximity" back on track. U.S. special envoy Senator George Mitchell arrived on Monday in Israel, where he will begin holding separate talks on Wednesday with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to discuss final-status issues for a two-state solution to their conflict. The Palestinians have refused to engage in direct talks with Israel as long as it continues to reject U.S. demands for a halt to construction in East Jerusalem, although some tacit form of agreement on the issue may have helped get the Palestinians back to the table.

The new talks will be launched without any pageantry, however, because there's very little optimism on any side of making substantial progress toward an agreement. More likely, the various parties are mulling over what to do once it is established that no breakthrough is likely.

The Israeli leadership does not believe a final agreement is possible now, not only because of differences between the two sides on issues such as Jerusalem, settlements and the rights of Palestinian refugees but also because they recognize that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has too little political authority to sell any agreement to his people. (Abbas won endorsement from the Arab League over the weekend for joining the proximity talks, but the fact that he needed regional backing is a reflection of his precarious domestic political standing.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have his own problems with such an agreement. The coalition of parties even more hawkish than his is unlikely to accept the terms of any plausible final-status agreement. And Israeli analysts warn that the large presence of settlers and their supporters in the officer corps of the Israeli Defense Force makes any attempt at large-scale evacuation of settlements — which settlers have vowed to resist — a high-risk option for any Israeli government.

For the Israeli government, a final-status agreement poses more immediate risks than does the status quo. Its leaders view the Palestinian economic development and institution-building currently under way in the West Bank as the key to eventually ending the conflict. Until that happens, Israel envisages some form of interim Palestinian "state" with provisional borders. That way, Israel would hold on to most of what it currently controls in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while negotiations on borders, the status of Jerusalem and refugees would be left for a more auspicious point in the future.

The Palestinians, however, see interim statehood as a trap that would freeze the contours of the status quo while potentially taking the conflict off the U.S. agenda. They note that Netanyahu has refused to commit to the parameters of a two-state solution as understood by previous Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators — a Palestinian state whose boundaries are negotiated on the basis of the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. So they're approaching the talks as an exercise in demonstrating to President Obama that, as Abbas put it last week, if he wants to see a two-state solution, he'd better "impose" one.

"Abbas is among the last among his people to arrive at the point he has reached," a respected mediation think tank, the International Crisis Group, wrote last week. "He is the restrained and belated expression of a visceral and deep [Palestinian] popular disillusionment with the peace process as they have grown to know it."

But while Abbas urges Obama to dictate terms to Netanyahu, leading Washington Democrats are demanding that the President stop pressuring Israel, and Obama's top Mideast policy adviser, Dennis Ross, is reportedly urging the Administration to work within the limits of what Israel's government is prepared to do. Important voices in Washington are warning that pressing for a final-status agreement is misguided. Getting caught up in trying to formulate the "contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant," wrote influential Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas last week in the Wall Street Journal, expressing a view shared by the Israeli government. The Israeli side may be entering the talks betting that the Administration's need to show some sort of achievement for its diplomatic effort would prompt Obama to twist Abbas' arm into accepting half a loaf.

But as the International Crisis Group has noted, the Palestinian leadership may no longer be relying on U.S. tutelage to deliver an end to the occupation. Instead, Abbas is threatening to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council — hoping to use international law to balance Israel's advantage in Washington politics.

One option getting increasing attention — perhaps because of the paucity of alternatives — is the plan by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to unilaterally declare statehood by August 2011 if all else fails. Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist appointed by Abbas at Washington's behest (over the objections of his own Fatah movement), is credited with the reform and institution-building that undergirds Israeli hopes for incremental peace through economic development. While the Israelis are wary of any unilateral action by the PA, Fayyad's plan seems to jibe with the idea of provisional statehood — after all, he can declare statehood only on territory under PA control. Jerusalem, final borders and the rest would still remain to eventually be negotiated with the Israelis.

But the Palestinian leadership is no more likely to embrace the idea of a provisional mini-state from Fayyad than it is to accept such an offer from the Israelis. Fayyad right now operates in something of a political bubble, with free political activity having been suppressed by the Israelis and the PA security forces. It's unlikely that free and fair elections would leave Fayyad in charge, and he's unlikely to be able to float his plan for statehood if it faces combined opposition from Fatah and Hamas.

Even Obama is reportedly preparing a Plan B. On April 30, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported claims that Obama told European leaders that if talks produce no progress by this fall, he would convene a world conference to establish international consensus on solutions to the issues on which Israelis and Palestinians disagree. That idea may be loathsome to the Israelis, but international mediation freed from the influence of U.S. domestic politics may be exactly what the Palestinian side is waiting for. And that's further reason to expect no progress in the "proximity" talks.