Back to the Table

It’s one of the mantras of Alcoholics Anonymous and other related ’12-step’ recovery groups, and it goes something like: “Insanity is repeating the exact same behaviors while expecting different results.”

With that in mind, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gather in Washington this week for what might just be the least enthusiastic negotiations in history. Jordan’s King Abdullah II and President Mubarak will be there as well to provide moral support, and the American hosts are doing their best to put an optimistic spin on things.

“It takes patience, persistence, a willingness to go back again and again, to not take the first ‘no’ as a final ‘no’, to not take the 50th ‘no’ as the final ‘no’ or the 100th ‘no’,” said US mediator George Mitchell.

Mitchell’s enthusiasm is admirable–and his history as one of the architects of peace in Northern Ireland give him enduring credibility. In announcing the new talks alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mitchell leaned heavily on his Irish experience as proof that even the most hopeless-looking situations can produce enduring peace.

"The main negotiation (on Northern Ireland) lasted 22 months. During that time the effort was repeatedly branded a failure," he said. "In a sense, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success. And we approach this task with the same determination to succeed.”

But at this point, after so many failed attempts–and with no real change in the conditions on both sides that led to those failures–it seems fair to ask how anyone could expect this to work.

“I don’t think anything significant will come out of this,” said Mostafa Elwi Saif, a Cairo University political science professor and Shura Council member. “The Israeli position hasn’t changed and the divisions of the Palestinians haven’t changed.”

This week’s Washington summit will kick start what US officials hope will be a year of direct negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas, with a stated goal of moving on to final status talks after that year. The last set of talks, launched amid great fanfare by the Bush administration in 200, collapsed nearly two years ago–just before Israel launched its devastating month-long assault on the Gaza Strip.

Since then, the situation has been relatively static. Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, remains in control in Ramallah, deeply unpopular and largely propped up by American and Israeli support. Hamas remains isolated but firmly in charge in Gaza. Netanyahu ascended to the premiership in Jerusalem, but to most Palestinian eyes his ‘right-wing’ leadership hasn’t been that much different than Ehud Olmert or Tzipi Livni’s theoretically ‘centrist’ style.

Whoever is in charge in Israel, the issue remains the settlements being built in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. President Obama, shortly after taking office, pushed Netanyahu hard on the settlements and flatly called for an absolute moratorium on all settlement construction. But Netanyahu pushed back and Obama (to most Arab observers) backed down. The end result was a limited 10-month freeze on construction that ends in late September.

All of which means that the first major threat to this new round of peace negotiations will come within the first month. By re-launching settlement construction, Netanyahu will essentially be able to scuttle the talks, or put the Palestinians in a nearly impossible situation, from the very start while still claiming that he hasn’t broken any agreements or gone back on his word.

Mouin Rabbani, a political analyst and former International Crisis Group representative, said the fatal flaw in these new negotiations is Abbas and Obama’s failure to secure any kind of Israeli commitment regarding settlement construction as a pre-condition for the talks.

“There’s no agenda, no preconditions, no terms of reference. This process couldn’t go anywhere if it wanted to,” Rabbani said. “The main goal of negotiations at this point is to support and sustain Abu Mazen’s position.”

Abbas resisted returning to the negotiating table for months, saying there was nothing to talk about unless there were firm Israeli commitments to halt settlement construction. But in the end he was forced by American (and Arab) pressure to sit down again without any of the guarantees he had previously said were essential.

“If he didn’t go (to Washington) there would have been consequences,” said Cairo University's Saif. “It would have damaged Palestinian-American relations.”

Rabbani cited another reason why Abbas is compelled to participate: his whole political persona is tied up in the idea of peaceful negotiations as a legitimate means of achieving Palestinian national aspirations. So even pointless negotiations are better than none at all.

“There’s either this or (Abbas) announces the final failure of his approach,” Rabbani said.

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