The False Promise of ‘Direct Talks’

The False Promise of ‘Direct Talks’

BEIRUT — I am not privy to the discussions that took place privately between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month in the White House. From the noise and chatter that has followed this meeting, I believe we should start pondering the consequences of the likelihood that there will be no resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict during this generation. I base this pessimistic short-term outlook on several premises:

1. We now have a new theme, yardstick and mantra for the Arab-Israeli diplomatic universe that continues to be largely shaped by Israeli-defined American logistics: The parties should move to direct negotiations very quickly. While welcoming any opportunity for real negotiations, we should remain skeptical of short-term expectations that are presented to us as potential breakthroughs, but end up being little more than delaying or diversionary tactics, cruel mirages in the desert. The emphasis on the need to shift to direct talks, and to transcend the “proximity talks” now taking place, represents the triumph of procedure over substance. Israel, and the American political machinery that Israel guides effortlessly through its proxies in Washington, has proven skillful at making the peace negotiating process an endless sequence of events and mechanisms –“direct talks” is the latest example — without seriously coming to grips with the core substantive issues that must be resolved for both sides.

2. Reliable reports from Israel and the United States indicate that Israel continues to approach the negotiations from the perspective that Israel’s ironclad “security” as a “Jewish state” must be the first order of business for any negotiations to make progress. This includes demilitarizing a future Palestinian state and maintaining a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. While these are logical concerns from the Israeli perspective, they cannot possibly be seriously considered as preconditions and cornerstones of negotiations to reach a permanent peace agreement. Pessimism is the only possible reaction to a peace-making industry that refuses to see Palestinian and Israeli national rights as both equal in magnitude and deserving to be addressed simultaneously, rather than sequentially, with Israel getting priority.

3. The revived American mediating role raised intriguing possibilities 18 months ago, but has yet to reveal its true nature in three critical dimensions: its durability, impartiality, and the US positions on core issues like Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and borders. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last November offered a glimpse of Washington’s position, when she said that Israeli-Palestinian direct negotiations could reconcile “the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”

This wording seems reasonable at first sight, but in fact reflects the underlying imbalances that have prevented any breakthrough in the peace process launched at Madrid almost two decades ago. The Clinton statement offers Palestinians rhetorical generalities about a “viable” and “independent” state (what else would they expect, a Bantustan?), and no mention of their core requirement to resolve their national condition of refugeehood. Meanwhile, the Israelis get the specifics that respond to their key and specific demands: the Jewish nature of their state, its security, and maintaining the gains of their colonial efforts in the form of their massive urban settlements since 1967.

If this is the current American sense of a fair framework for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it probably guarantees failure. It reflects both the Israeli desire to define how the negotiations happen and what they aim to achieve, along with the continuing American penchant to come down closer to the Israeli position, rather than to hold the middle round where any credible mediator should be.

4. The Arab world continues to participate in these overall dynamics more as interested observers than as principals to the process, which largely explains why the Israeli-shaped American mediating legacy remains both skewed and unsuccessful. As Arab governments persist in their diplomatic mediocrity and abstinence, the vacuum in both domestic governance and regional power politics is slowly filled by indigenous militant and resistance groups like Hizbullah and Hamas, activists like Islamists and nationalists, foreign parties like Turkey and Iran, assorted other actors like tribal associations and private sector conglomerates, and even multinational actors like UN peace-keeping troops, the “Quartet,” or Al-Qaeda. This fragmentation of once coherent Arab countries and power structures and the slow dissipation of their state sovereignty bodes ill for the region, and portends more ravages like the last wars in Lebanon and Gaza.

Left unresolved, the Arab-Israeli conflict does not go away. It only finds new ways to transform injustice to resistance, stalemate to provocative outbursts, insecurity to fanaticism, despondence to destruction, and activism to savagery. Watching this process unfold before our eyes yet again is depressing, but not surprising.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.