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Mitchell’s way: Let’s not talk, and say we did
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Mitchell’s way: Let’s not talk, and say we did

Israelis and Palestinians are about to take a giant step backwards that just might help them move ahead toward peace.

After more than 16 years of face-to-face negotiations they are on the verge of reverting to indirect talks through an American mediator. It is a sign of the lack of trust between the two adversaries as well as their lack of real commitment to what used to be called the “peace process.”

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is willing or able to make the essential historic compromises required for signing a peace treaty. But it is in their interests to appear that they are.

Before any talks can begin, Abbas needs help climbing down from the limb he crawled out on, with American encouragement. He has refused any direct negotiations unless Israel meets his — and for a time the Obama administration’s — demand for a total construction freeze beyond the 1967 border.

It soon became obvious that was a non-starter, but Abbas couldn’t retreat without appearing weak and indecisive — which he actually is. So he needed a face-saving solution, and U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell came up with it: indirect talks.

That would mean turning the clock back on 16 years of direct negotiations, but the fact that all three parties are happy to go along suggests prospects for progress are dim.

Nonetheless, there’s something in it for everyone:

  • Abbas can insist he is not compromising on his unrealistic demands because those apply to direct talks, and these are at a lower level.
  • Netanyahu can reverse the drop in his and Israel’s international stature by grabbing the mantle of peacemaker while assuring the hardliners in his government that he made no new concessions to get the Palestinians to the table, and
  • Barack Obama can show his Middle East policy isn’t a total flop.

Abbas has been under pressure from the Americans, Europeans, and Arabs to break the stalemate and find a path to the negotiating table.

In return, he is expected to get a package of Israeli goodwill gestures — reportedly including the release of some Palestinian prisoners, transfer of additional West Bank areas to Palestinian Authority control, reopening of Palestinian offices in eastern Jerusalem, and a halt in Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities. The Obama administration has had less luck arranging some reciprocal gestures from various Arab states to encourage more Israeli concessions.

Palestinian sources say the proximity talks could begin as early as Feb. 20 and last three to four months, with Mitchell shuttling between the two teams.

Abbas has been complaining a lot recently that Obama isn’t putting enough pressure on Israel. He wants the administration to declare its positions on final status issues — refugees, Jerusalem, and borders – and, according to Palestinian officials, provide assurances of what it will do if Israel does not agree to them.

That would be an incentive for him to run out the clock and then demand Obama force Israel to accept those terms. That’s an obvious non-starter for Israel: one more excuse by Abbas to avoid negotiations.

That appeared to be on Netanyahu’s mind when he told his Cabinet this week, “we will not enter into negotiations when everything is known in advance.”

Returning to high-level negotiations is risky for all three parties because they will be raising expectations even though the likelihood they will produce a breakthrough is slim. There will be a high price to pay for failure, from the loss of public trust to possible war. Palestinians can no more get the U.S. to be their surrogate and force their terms on Israel than Israel can get away with stalling endlessly in the hope everyone will just leave them alone.

Hamas remains a major obstacle. Abbas nominally speaks for the West Bank, but his authority is rejected in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Assuming he could reach an agreement with Israel, he couldn’t implement it in Gaza, where he dare not even set foot.

Netanyahu has told Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos he has “no problem with proximity talks or indirect negotiations” if they provide Abbas “a ladder that will enable (him) to climb down from the tree, and as a corridor that will lead to high-level talks.”

Much will depend on whether the Obama administration genuinely regards the new proximity talks as the first step toward reviving the peace process — or simply as a face-saving gesture and holding action after its initially inflated expectations were dashed against harsh Middle East realities.

So far the signs are far from clear.

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