The National (Editorial)
April 25, 2010 - 12:00am

The news that the Obama administration is calling for US-mediated proximity talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel next month is reason for more of a groan than a cheer. Under current conditions, we fail to see how the much discredited and maligned “peace process” is served by such talks; it seems that they give us more of a process without putting us any closer to peace.

Already the talks are falling victim to low expectations, with Washington signalling that it doesn’t expect much. That, of course, won’t prevent the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from attending. For their own domestic political reasons, both must pay obeisance at the altar of the peace process.

The push to proximity talks is clouded by Washington’s agenda, too. Nearly a year after the US president Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, he needs to claim some success in advancing the peace process.

For anyone hoping for progress in achieving a just settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, proximity talks are problematic by themselves. Such talks have value when the parties are strangers to each other, and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators hardly fit that description; in fact, there’s little that they don’t know about each other – all the way down to each other’s hand gestures, verbal quirks and facial tics. There’s no mystery, either, about the outlines of a final settlement.

Most importantly, what proximity talks cannot disguise is the lack of political will. And the blame for that falls squarely on the double-dealing Mr Netanyahu, who rebuffs even the basic demand of ordering a halt to construction of housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, the proposed capital of a future Palestinian state.

That is where the basic problem with proximity talks – or any talks – lies. In a little noticed interview last month with an Israeli daily, his vice premier Moshe Yaalon said Mr Netanyahu didn’t really mean what he said about the two-state solution. The government has to “manoeuvre” in response to the “illusion that an agreement can be reached”, Mr Yaalon said.

Not since 2004, when Dov Weisglass, a close adviser to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, boasted that he had succeeded in “freezing” the peace process and delaying the creation of a Palestinian state “until the Palestinians turn to Finns”, have we heard so plain-spoken a description of the thinking of Israel’s right-wing political establishment.

We aren’t opposed to proximity talks or any talks per se. We are opposed to the kind of dialogue that is a cheap substitute for political will – in other words, the kinds of talks that have given the peace process such a bad name. Opposition to such talks is prudence, not intransigence.

There’s an alternative. To demonstrate his determination for peace and to reassure both Palestinians and Israelis of good will, Mr Obama ought to look beyond proximity talks and put the prestige of his office and his Nobel Peace Prize on the line. Sooner or later – preferably sooner – he should go to Jerusalem and Ramallah.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017