Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
May 5, 2010 - 12:00am

The broad agreement to launch “proximity talks” between Israelis and Palestinians this week has been widely dismissed as a gesture without much hope or substance. That may be too pessimistic and too early a conclusion. The talks, in which George Mitchell will shuttle between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, may include some intriguing elements that are worth watching, especially vis-à-vis the US and its views on a permanent peace settlement.

Here are my top 10 reasons why we should not dismiss the proximity talks so quickly: First, the talks represent a tangible sign of the persistence and the limited success of US President Barack Obama’s administration in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, after both Arabs and Israelis last year sharply rejected its initial foray into this treacherous terrain. Persistence in mediation is crucial for success. Washington seems seriously to believe that an Arab-Israeli peace agreement is in its own national interest.

Second, pragmatism and patience seem to have triumphed in the competition among the three schools of thought in Washington on how the United States should proceed. An American ex-official and friend who worked in this arena for years described them to me recently as: the “Dennis Ross” approach that sees placating Israel as the most critical lynchpin of American Mideast diplomacy; the “George Mitchell” approach that sees resumption of negotiations, even indirect proximity talks, as the critical imperative of the moment, so that a new dynamic emerges that can move things forward; and, the “Jim Jones” approach that sees America’s national strategic interests as requiring Washington to lay out its own ideas on how to achieve peace.

Third, Mitchell is a realistic and experienced negotiator who has just scored a small success. However, only when talks begin can he put all his skills to work. Significantly, he will mediate between high-level Israelis and Palestinians, including the prime minister and president respectively on both sides, and Obama himself almost certainly will become more involved behind the scenes.

Fourth, the agreement to start these talks shows how the US can use its influence to move both sides when it puts its mind to it. In this case, the talks will start with Israel effectively freezing all its settlements without publicly declaring this, and the Palestinians agreeing to join without Israel acceding to their demand that it formally announce a settlement freeze. Both sides get something important, and simultaneously give something important to the other side. Chalk up another one for the George Mitchell School of Diplomacy.

Fifth, if the US is ever going to use its muscle to push for a realistic and fair compromise agreement, it can only do so inside a negotiating process. There, it can do things that it would never be able to attempt in the public arena where too many other constraints are at play.

Sixth, the US is the official instigator, mediator, cheerleader, hand-holder and back-rubber of the proximity talks, but also the record keeper, archivist and note-taker. When either side now makes a move, takes a position, or accepts or tables an offer, it will be recorded for posterity. Leaders can no longer play games with what they accept or reject, and must face both each other and their own people more honestly. All sides now must get down off the fence.

Seventh, only when proximity talks get underway can the US – if it wishes, which I believe it cannot avoid – start to offer bridging proposals that seek to bring the two sides closer together. The US will never offer its own peace plan unilaterally in a speech or a television interview; it needs the context of an active negotiation to influence the parties by showing its hand, revealing its views on a permanent, comprehensive peace, and nudging both sides in that direction.

Eighth, the proximity talks have a built-in clock, which the Arab world has set at four months. We don’t know what happens if no progress is achieved after four months, but the official death of open-ended talks is a good step.

Ninth, the resumption of formal, if indirect, negotiations provides a context in which the negotiators and the mediator can all work more maturely to harness regional and international support for the diplomatic process than Presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush did in their failed attempts.

And tenth, the talks provide a means for public opinion on both sides to coalesce around quality, courageous leadership, if such a thing exists in Israel and Palestine. Leaders can achieve a peace agreement only if they have majority support among their people. The resumption of official negotiations provides an opportunity for this to happen – if Arabs and Israelis respectively decide to replace mediocre leaders and failed policies with something more serious, dignified and effective.


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