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Shifting Sands: Why Peace Talks Might Just Work

I n late August, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to the Obama administration’s plan to renew face-to-face negotiations without preconditions, most opinion makers reacted with deep skepticism. So anxious were the editors of the New York Times to declare the talks all but dead-on-arrival that they led with a dismissive article labeled “News Analysis”—the first time in my memory that the paper had deliberately used an analytical piece as a vehicle to debunk the hard news that followed. The analysis summarized the opinion of most Middle East experts who quickly lined up to dub the negotiations a frivolous confrontation between an Israeli leader who wants no agreement and a Palestinian leader too weak to get one.

Prior to my most recent visit to the region this June, my own instincts would have mirrored those of my colleagues in the media. I had covered Israel for ABC News from 1984–86 and had returned to the area on writing assignments three times between 2002 and 2007. Like many other journalists, my experiences in the region had produced a sense of hopelessness. After all, this conflict has survived war, peace negotiations, terrorist assaults on civilians, an authorized suicide bombing campaign, presidential arm-twisting, even proximity talks. So it was with no great optimism that I undertook another journey to the area this summer. I was surprised at just how different the situation on the ground looks and feels than it did on any previous visits. And although I returned well versed in the reasons to be skeptical of an agreement, I part company with colleagues who believe the upcoming talks will settle nothing.

So what is different now? I offer the following observations based on a large number of interviews with senior diplomats, government officials, legislators, and negotiators on both sides, most of them working for peace with a new urgency:

• The Israelis and the majority Fatah wing of the PLO now share a vital interest in the containment of Hamas—the Iran-backed radical Sunni group—which, during the summer of 2007, violently seized control of the Gaza Strip.

• Recognition of this interest has already produced significant cooperation in such matters as intelligence, the apprehension of suspected terrorists, and the training and equipping of Palestinian security forces.

• Led by the widely respected Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and others, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is finally developing an infrastructure of statehood that has generated cautious hope among many Israelis that a Palestinian regime could be a source of stability and democratic values in the region.

• The parties are much closer to agreement in such key areas as refugees, land swaps, and post-accord security arrangements than has been generally reported. In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the opening weeks of his administration evidenced ambivalence about the two-state solution, is now firmly on board.

• Finally, after more than a year of erratic diplomacy, the Obama administration now appears to appreciate the necessity to the peace process of face-to-face negotiations. Issues such as the move of Israeli Jews into contested East Jerusalem may rankle, but the White House seems to realize that at this stage of affairs, giving the parties excuses for avoiding such talks is counterproductive.

 

O ne of the most illuminating discussions I had on my trip was with a senior Israeli military intelligence officer whom I had first met in 2007. He told me that he saw both good news and bad news regarding the Palestinians. The good news: “There is cooperation—tactical, military, and with civilian infrastructure” and “the PA has established order with troops trained in Jordan.” The bad news: “We cannot implement peace because [the PA] does not have Gaza . . . the PA is not capable of taking back Gaza unless we do it for them, which we don’t want.” Reclaiming Gaza is indeed a necessary step for any Israeli-Palestinian agreement to take hold. But both Israeli and Palestinian optimists argue that it need not be the first step.

More immediately, the theme of close cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security officials is echoed by senior figures on both sides. United by a common enemy (i.e., Hamas), the two longtime adversaries appear to be building a de facto alliance even before the old epithets go out of style. My military intelligence source expressed concern that the failure to reach agreement with moderate Palestinians on a future state could bring vital Israeli facilities within range of hostile fire: “We are very close to a Palestinian state, so we cannot fail again. If we get two rockets everyday at Ben Gurion we are done.”

The overlapping strategic interests of Israel and Fatah extend from Hamas to an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Israelis overwhelmingly regard this as an “existential” issue. The overwhelming consensus is that if the United States fails to take decisive action, Israel will—beginning with strikes against the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz and its uranium conversion plant at Isfahan. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has developed close ties with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders while serving as Europe’s representative in Jerusalem, took a similar view of Israel’s likely response in a cell phone conversation he had with me as he drove through the West Bank: “Personally, I think Israel would not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons.” Sunni regimes in the region secretly hope that this is true. Ironically, it may be Israel’s nuclear umbrella that shields some of its conservative regional colleagues from Iranian attack, completely revamping the region’s strategic picture.

I was also fortunate to meet with Yasir Abed Rabbo, the diminutive, chain-smoking Palestinian veteran of more negotiating sessions with Israelis than he can count. Referring to the productive 2007 talks between President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that were torpedoed by corruption charges forcing Olmert’s resignation, Abed Rabbo claimed, “The offer from Olmert was the ’67 borders with a 6.5 percent land swap. We offered about two percent but Olmert didn’t say anything.”

In fact, Olmert had plenty to say. He and Abbas met for face-to-face talks on some thirty-five occasions with significant progress made on such key issues as the division of sovereignty in Jerusalem along religious lines with holy places subject to international administration, and a broad right of way in the form of a tunnel linking Gaza to the West Bank. Had Olmert escaped the relentless criminal investigators, we might today already be examining the provisions of a negotiated settlement, although like most Palestinian Authority veteran negotiators, Abed Rabbo bitterly recounts the impact of Israeli West Bank settlements on the issues under discussion: “It’s as though you ask me to sit and discuss the future of this table, but as we talk you are slicing away the pieces of the table.”

 

T he question of post-accord security for Israelis dominates every discussion of a deal with the Palestinians. The transition from Bush to Obama does not appear to have produced any significant glitches in the critical area of permanent security arrangements. First outlined by Condoleezza Rice, and later fleshed out by General James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, all key points of the plan have been presented to both sides without any deal-breakers becoming apparent. Under the Rice-Jones plan, Palestine would become a “demilitarized state with a strong police force.” As summarized by Abed Rabbo, “An international force would be deployed on the borders and inside the