Peace talks resume amid doubt as Egypt plays key role

Jerusalem–At long last, Middle East peace talks will restart on Wednesday, this time with a new twist: Israelis and Palestinians will conduct their negotiations without actually speaking to one another.

Instead, breaking a year and a half of ”peace process” suspension, the US will negotiate with each side separately and then try to bridge the gaps in what are known as ”proximity talks” overseen by special envoy George Mitchell. With only a half-hour drive from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s headquarters in Ramallah to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s compound in West Jerusalem, the talks are aptly named.

With much at stake for Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak on Monday hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for talks about the proximity talks. Israeli media reports said there was a ”good atmosphere.”

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a Tel Aviv University specialist on inter-Arab politics, said of the meeting: ”Getting the Israeli-Palestinian track moving in a positive direction is part of Egypt’s need to demonstrate its regional leadership, to show it is an asset to the United States and to justify its pragmatic approach and peace treaty with Israel.”

Deadlock, Maddy-Weitzman believes, can only harm Egypt by boosting Hamas and Hizbullah, groups it has increasingly come to view as its enemies. In domestic terms, hosting Netanyahu in Sharm al-Sheikh also sent a message that Mubarak is fit and in charge, despite recent questions about his health, Maddy-Weitzman added.

Israeli radio said that at the meeting an urgent humanitarian appeal from Israeli chief rabbi Shlomo Amar was conveyed to President Mubarak to pardon Oudah Tarabin, a Bedouin citizen of Israel who has served the last 11 years in an Egyptian prison on espionage charges. His jail conditions have recently deteriorated and he is considering suicide, according to Israelis active on Tarabin’s behalf.

Over the past weekend, Egypt was pivotal in bringing about an Arab League endorsement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to resume the diplomacy, albeit indirectly, with the Israelis.

As usual, skepticism among Israelis and Palestinians is in large supply. ”Nothing will come of this,” says Yossi Beilin, the Israeli architect of the 1993 Oslo Agreement. ”What is the point of indirect talks when we already for years have been speaking face to face?”

Leading West Bank analyst Hani Masri sums up the assessment of most Palestinians simply: ”Israel is not ready for peace.”

Despite the negative, rhetoric the talks do hold promise. They put the two sides on a more equal footing than the asymmetrical David versus Goliath equation of direct negotiations. The proximity talks could be a welcome development if the US adopts a robust posture in pressuring both sides to compromise. On the other hand, they will will be a fresh exercise in futility if Washington shies away from an active role.

The idea that America serve as Middle East negotiations arbiter and catalyst is a throwback to the shuttle diplomacy Henry Kissinger conducted with much success between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria after the 1973 war.

At that time, when Israel was deemed to be unreasonably unyielding, a ”reassessment” of US policy towards its ally was announced until Israel moved toward an interim agreement with Egypt that entailed a partial withdrawal from the Sinai. The agreement was a final step in moving Egypt out of the Soviet orbit and into its alliance with Washington that continues to this day.

But Egyptian-Israeli diplomacy was simple compared to the hornet’s nest Mitchell will be handling. The territory Israel would have to give up in the West Bank is much more significant to a powerful segment of the Israeli population–the settlers and their backers–than the wilderness of Sinai.

It remains to be seen whether Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, will be the Mitchell who helped strike the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland or if he will be a character reminiscent of his later stint as chairman of Disney.

It would seem that Washington should be on the same side as Abbas on at least one key issue. Through its pursuit of settlement in Arab areas Israel is acting out of step with wider American interests in a region where the United States–embroiled in two wars–is loathe to be associated with policies that fuel Muslim animosity.

Netanyahu’s hard-line nationalist government—termed by Haaretz newspaper recently the most ”extreme” in Israeli history—has not been taking into account broader American interests in the region, including the stability of moderate Arab governments challenged by Iranian-backed radicalism, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In each instance, America’s hand is undermined by the perception that it acts against Muslim interests.

Beilin says the US was wrong to allow itself to be dragged last year into endless bargaining with Netanyahu over a settlement freeze that it did not obtain in the end. ”The US should have put its weight behind its demand and moved forward. Because if the US is serious about pushing its demands, Israel must listen.”

Masri, head of the Bada’il thinktank in Ramallah, believes that those who want to see America actively push a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are still outweighed within the Obama administration by those who believe the status quo is manageable. ”America has the desire but it does not have the will,” he says.

A similar view is espoused by Ahmed Youssef, senior adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in the Gaza Strip. ”Obama has good intentions but the pro-Israel congress and the Jewish lobby make the president walk a very tight rope,” Youssef says.

”America all these years gave Israel all the leverage it needed to build settlements and Judaize Jerusalem,” he adds. ”This makes our people very suspicious that America will convince Israel to let the Palestinians build a state on 20 percent of Palestine.”

Related Articles

Back to top button