The National (Editorial)
January 10, 2010 - 1:00am

Judging from the intense activity on the Arab-Israeli peace front in recent weeks, there is reason for cautious hope that the current paralysis will end soon. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was recently in Cairo meeting the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers met the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the peace envoy George Mitchell last week, while Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, visited Cairo, Riyadh and Damascus.

Cynics will argue that such movement has often happened to no avail. Unless the Israelis can be made to understand that military dominance will not offer them long-term security and normalised relations with their neighbours, they rightly note, all this is mere theatrics.

Some analysts remain unconvinced that an opportunity exists. Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, two veteran peace negotiators, recently wrote that “as currently defined and negotiated, a conflict-ending settlement is practically unachievable” and, therefore, “the idea of a long-term interim arrangement acquires some logic”. To prove them right, Palestinian negotiators continue to demand a complete settlement freeze before sitting at the table, rejecting what they view as meagre gestures from the Israeli side.

Yet there are reasons not to belittle the current effort. Instead of caving in after the failure of their first attempts at peacemaking, Barack Obama and Mr Mitchell continue to pledge that they will soon jump-start final status talks between Israelis and Palestinians, even talking about a two-year horizon for a peace deal. No one knows whether this horizon is a deadline (the Israelis have rejected any such thing), and if so, what the US plans to do after that, though Mr Mitchell has recently alluded to the possibility of withholding loan guarantees to Israel, which would give some teeth to the US approach.

Much will depend on how the US plays its hand. It can use its leverage to create disincentives in case of paralysis. It can make the Clinton parameters the basis for negotiation. It can even, in a last-ditch though high-risk attempt, define the end-state and help the two parties to get there instead of arbitrating between them.

The US has often been criticised for being an unfair broker given its closeness to Israel, and rightly so. But an unpleasant truth is that whenever the US has found itself at odds with Israel, at least publicly, Israel tends to harden its position and become even more uncompromising. This is not to say that the US needs to espouse the Israeli position or give its obstruction a blind eye, as it too often does. But this imbalance can be corrected by determined Arab diplomacy and a unified Palestinian push that rides on the momentum created by US diplomacy. Mr Mitchell is slated to visit the region soon; it is to be hoped that he brings more clarity to how the US administration intends to proceed.


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