May 29th 2010

Prerequisites for the Success of Proximity Talks

by Alon Ben-Meir

 

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.

This year, May 15th came and went without too much noise, relatively speaking. While the 62nd anniversary of the state of Israel was celebrated with fireworks and praise by Israelis throughout Jerusalem, noticeably absent was Mahmoud Abbas' speech commemorating what is known by Palestinians as the "Nakba" or catastrophe. Currently, as proximity talks mediated by the US are underway for the second time following a series of public missteps by all parties, it seems that there is a concerted effort not to make any moves that might sabotage the fragile nature of the trilateral relationship.

In this tense climate, it is doubtful that a deal feasible to all parties will come in the four month time period allotted. But if President Obama and his team can play their cards well, the looming threats from Iran and the current lull in violence from the Palestinians may give them the advantage needed to make significant progress. There are a few issues that the Obama administration will need to carefully consider to ensure these negotiations bear some fruit .First, President Obama must keep in mind is that any talks conducted strictly in isolation will likely end that way. In a region where, as the dictum goes, no war is possible without Egypt, no peace without Syria-and the support of Saudi Arabia-these countries as well as Jordan should be present in negotiations. Palestinians will need political cover and support from the leading Arab states to make difficult concessions, and the states that will be instrumental in ensuring the success of a future Palestine should be privy to the decision-making process from the very beginning. Inclusivity will also address

the Israeli qualms about their future status with the larger Arab world and allay some of the Israeli concerns over their long-term national security. In addition, if negotiations are comprehensive, Israel will not only feel that the deal on the table has the backing of the Arab states, but that normalization of relations with these states is possible. While George Mitchell has secured some progress with the Palestinian Authority, he needs to look wider in scope if he wants a solution credible enough for Israel and palatable to the Arab states.

The next consideration that must be kept a priority throughout proximity talks is Syria's special interest in the conflict. As a central player in the region with its own land claims with Israel and the reigns to Hamas, Hezbollah, and a powerful Iranian influence, Obama cannot afford to marginalize Syria's role. If excluded from the process, Bashar al-Assad can and will undermine negations through proxy groups if he feels Syrian interests are being neglected. He recently outlined the Syrian position as being ready for peace or war at al times, a statement which should not be pushed aside. Damascus' improved regional political fortunes have emboldened Syria to take a much more assertive posture. The political tactics by the US Senate stalling Robert Ford's appointment as ambassador to Syria are not helping US efforts at engagement. Yet any Syrian track that is pursued with the US or Israel will also be futile without any progress on the Palestinian front. The best way to avoid failure in this case is to make proxy talks a segue for what should be a broad and comprehensive strategy toward Syria and the other Arab League member-states.

In this sense, putting proximity talks in the context of a grand picture will be paramount to this process. While the negotiations of the 90's and 2000's fell short of establishing peace, they made great headway and set a precedent for the current status quo. Oslo, Madrid, Camp David, Annapolis and the countless other efforts by previous administrations should absolutely serve as a frame of reference for the current negotiations. The atmosphere has not changed in such a dramatic way that the agreements made by all camps in previous negotiations should not hold true for the most part today. Some of the final status issues

that remain on the table such as refugees, Jerusalem and final borders have been negotiated time and again and should therefore take off from where they were left at the last round of talks.

In formulating a comprehensive Arab-Israeli strategy, the Obama administration would be best served to look at the Arab Peace Initiative (API) as a main framework for moving forward with negotiations. The document, which is backed and signed by the entire Arab League, is the only peace plan thus far with the outreach to bring normalization and peace between Israel and all 21 Arab states in exchange for an end to the occupation. If the US were to adopt the API principles into its own peace plan, it would give the document much more legitimacy in the eyes of the Israelis and encourage the Arab states to reign in Palestinian extremist elements. In this regard, the United States must encourage Israel to look more favorably at the API and take advantage of such opportunities like the Qatari offer to engage in reconstruction efforts in Gazain exchange for normalization of relations. This is how the API can be translated into practical measures for all to see, including Iran, and for Israel to strengthen its position as it normalizes relations with one Arab country following another.

While Obama should get credit for his tenacity in resuming negotiations despite early setbacks, he cannot afford another failure at this point. This could have the deleterious effect of painting the Obama administration as helpless in the eyes of both allies and detractors. In order to remain a credible interlocutor with enough political capital to sway both parties to the center, he will need to start showing some deliverables. Netanyahu has insisted that direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians should be the next phase, provided that some discernable progress is first made in the proximity talks with the American mediation. The fact though is that throughout the Oslo, Taba and 2008 negotiations, direct talks with no mediation were not successful in achieving a breakthrough. If Obama wants to ensure success, he needs to start showing the Israeli and Arab public that he has a plan and a grand strategy for dealing with not only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but US engagement as a whole toward the Middle East. US Mediation is and will continue to be indispensable to ultimately achieve the desired outcome, both through direct and indirect negotiations between Israel and the Arab states.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, President Obama should use the occasion of Prime Minister Netanyahu's formal visit to the White House to allay the concerns of the Israeli public. The visit will certainly serve to mend much the tension between Obama and Netanyahu, but the President must also use the opportunity of a joint press conference with Netanyahu to address the Israeli public directly: President Obama needs to reaffirm not only American commitment to Israel's national security but also explain why many elements of American national security concerns are linked to Middle East stability and how American and Israeli strategic interests are parallel and complimentary. He needs to tell the Israelis why America is seeking a comprehensive peace, why an Arab-Israeli peace offers Israel the best security guarantees and how the United States intends to see this through. The Israelis need to hear from the President why painful concessions must be made and why the prospect of regional peace, security and prosperity will by far outweigh these concessions.

Such a message will not only serve to alleviate much of the Israelis' anxiety over the necessary concessions, but will also send a powerful message to the enemies of peace that the United States' standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel is the prerequisite to peace and the anchor to regional stability.

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