Israeli and Palestinian talks may seem hopeless, but they must continue


Cranes are seen in the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in east Jerusalem on November 10, 2010 as construction goes on after Israel ruled out a freeze on the building of new settler homes in east Jerusalem, defying world powers who have warned the issue risks wrecking fragile peace talks with the Palestinians.



SAG HARBOR, New York — Compelling Israelis and Palestinians to stick to the negotiating table was always going to be a difficult task. Previous negotiations have typically collapsed either in the middle of the process or at the very last minute.

The reasons were many: domestic political obstacles, continued settlement building by the Israeli’s, immovable Palestinian preconditions or a lack of leadership from both sides.

So, when US Secretary of State John Kerry announced to the world that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were returning to direct negotiations after three years, there was a lot of skepticism about the prospects for success.

Now, after three months into a diplomatic process that is supposed to arrive at a permanent agreement in nine months, the skeptics are starting to feel vindicated.

The Palestinians have been complaining in private to US officials and in public to the media that the United States is taking a passive approach to the talks — sitting on the sidelines while Israelis and Palestinians try to hash out their differences.

Israelis are complaining that the Palestinians are making too much of a big deal on the settlements issue, particularly when most of the building is taking place in areas that are assumed to be part of Israel in any final agreement.

The Palestinians, naturally, have long refuted that argument: how can we establish a state of our own, they say, when new units are being constructed on the very same land that is supposed to be a part of an independent Palestine?

The peace negotiations were on shaky ground long before the Israeli Housing Ministry prematurely announced projects for the construction of an additional 20,000 houses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But it appears that this announcement was simply too much for the Palestinian delegation to digest, even if Netanyahu quickly pressured his Housing Minister to rescind the plan.

Taken on its face, another stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is an unfortunate occurrence. But when combined with a series of violent incidents in the West Bank that have resulted in the deaths of a number of Israelis, it conveys a dangerous warning of what could happen in the absence of an agreement.

The question now is what can Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States do to save a process that is edging closer to the abyss?

Much like the conflict itself, there is no single answer to this question, although past negotiators have suggested a number of theories and ideas.

It would be too easy to say that both parties need to compromise, with Israel giving the Palestinians a state based along the 1967 lines and the Palestinians in return recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. If both sides were willing to go there, today’s process would not be in such dire straights.

Experts on the Middle East peace process would put forth a series of ideas for a final agreement:

• Convincing Israeli settlers, perhaps at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, to move from their homes in the West Bank.

• Tying Israeli and Palestinian economies together in ways that would benefit of both.

• Allowing a few thousand Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in modern-day Israel as a token gesture of goodwill by Israel.

• Dividing Jerusalem so Jews and Arabs alike will be able to call the city their historic capital.

Some of these proposals have been on the table since the Oslo Accords of 1993, while others have emerged more recently to account for demographic changes on the ground.

Regardless how much animosity or doubt there may be, the negotiators must keep talking before any of these proposals can be put to the test. Ensuring that both sides stay are around the table for the next six months is a notable achievement within reach of the negotiators.

The challenges are formidable, given the negative climate that has come to pervade the discussions thus far. The challenges need to be overcome, for the alternative is not talking, which carries dire consequences.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat, Inc., an online consulting firm that leverages a global network of experts on a range of topics.