Media Mention of Hussein Ibish in Xinhua - May 18, 2010 - 12:00am

It is now one year four months and 21 days since the last official talks between Israelis and Palestinians. During those 506 days the parties have repeatedly blamed one another for that breakdown and the failure to reboot negotiations.

Indirect peace talks are expected to resume on Wednesday but Israelis and Palestinians alike are still expressing serious reservations about the chances of their success.

The Americans, meanwhile, are pinning their hopes on special envoy Senator George Mitchell. United States President Barack Obama believed his appointee can bring the same calm to the Middle East that he delivered to Northern Ireland.


The parties have agreed the parley will begin in indirect fashion. Mitchell will shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their respective top negotiators. From time to time the conversation will shift to Washington but all the while the parties will not meet face to face -- at least not for public consumption.

The Americans hope that will change fairly quickly and when sufficient trust is built up they will return to the same type of face-to-face talks in which they have been involved over the last two decades.

"The U.S. administration probably needs to have achieved face- to-face talks before the Netanyahu administration moratorium on settlement construction expires in September," said Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in New Jersey.

The Arab League has given its blessing to the process but along with the Palestinians has said that if there is no major progress by the time the West Bank building freeze comes to an end there is no point in continuing the peace process.

"Absent face to face at that time there will probably be little leverage to use against the Israelis to continue the moratorium. The problem here is that the Palestinians know this as well," Kahn said.

While most of the focus of Obama's Middle East policy is on his overseas objectives there are also domestic factors to take into account.

Even though the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington is thought to be dwindling, it is still a force to be reckoned with. There has also been considerable consternation in the pro-Israel camp regarding Obama's Middle East policy. This was underlined when the Obama team went on a public offensive against Israel after Israel embarrassed Vice President Joseph Biden by announcing interim approval for a new housing project in a Jewish suburb of East Jerusalem at the very time that Biden was in the city.

"He has certainly begun to allay some -- but by no means all -- of the anxieties of Jews in the United States concerning his approach to the peace process after the brouhaha that occurred during the Biden visit," said Kahn.

The U.S. academic expects the White House to announce before the mid-term elections that Obama will visit Israel.


The Palestinians are very nervous about doing business with the Netanyahu government. They say they were not able to trust him the first time he was premier in the 1990s. And even if he is sincere about cutting a deal, he heads a hawkish coalition that will not be prepared to make the "painful compromises" that his predecessor Ehud Olmert said were necessary to bring peace.

"The best case scenario is that talks will generate their own dynamic and that there's more flexibility in the positions and more political space opens up," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the U.S. Task Force on Palestine.

After that opening gambit, Ibish immediately took a step back and said he is not optimistic that this scenario will come to fruition. To try to move in the right direction, he thinks the U.S. approach of tackling one issue at a time makes the most sense and, accompanied by pressure on the parties could lead them towards direct negotiations.

One of the key factors weighing in favor of the success of the talks is that neither party wishes to be blamed for their failure, Ibish told Xinhua.

"I don't think either of them goes in with any degree of confidence in the other side, I think they're very skeptical about each other and I think they are skeptical about process as well," he said.

"But they're both keenly aware that the United States has undertaken to hold parties accountable both for their responsibilities and for the dynamics of the talks. Both parties feel very strongly that they don't want to be seen as the obstacle, " he added.


While he may not agree with Ibish when it comes to the nitty gritty, The Jerusalem Post's political correspondent Gil Hoffman did share his negativity about the chances of success for the process.

"Everyone is really skeptical of the other side and because of that they don't think it will move forward," Hoffman said, adding that in Israel the doves are far more frustrated than the hawks and they feel the Obama team has seriously mishandled the issue thus far.

There is a feeling in Israel that the Palestinians believe they do not need to make concessions because if they hold off for long enough the Americans will come around to their way of thinking.

Most of the concessions spoken about by the international community are demanded of Israel, be they prisoner releases, the easing of checkpoints or the handing over of greater security powers to the Palestinians.

However, Hoffman maintained the Palestinians also have what to give. They can give up on some of their territorial demands, the same applies to the Palestinian refugees and they can also agree to a demilitarized West Bank, in the short-term at least, he suggested.

At this stage, the Palestinians seem unwilling to concede on any of these points and likewise the Israelis on most of the Palestinian demands. It is this negativity that is overshadowing the start of indirect talks.

However, if one is looking for something positive, then perhaps it is to be found in the fact that these are merely the initial bargaining positions of the parties. Once the doors are closed and the media is left in the cold the sides can begin laying their cards on the table.

The longer that process continues, without leaks to the media, the greater the chances that Mitchell may lead the talks to a positive conclusion.


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