A few years back when Washington was preparing for the then highly touted Annapolis Peace Conference, I remember commenting that I was "hopeful, but not optimistic". As we approach the latest incarnation of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, I'm even finding it difficult to be hopeful, though I will continue try to be supportive recognizing, as I do, the consequences of failure.
Convening these talks at this time is certainly a gutsy move for President Barack Obama. Knowing that the odds of success are slim and the costs of yet another let down are great, one can only hope that the President and his seasoned and accomplished team (including Secretary of State Clinton and Special Envoy Mitchell) have a trick or two up their sleeves, ready to play at the appropriate moment. But we've been down this road too many times, under far better circumstances, to easily give oneself over to the notion that this time surely will be different.
To begin with, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, while insisting that these talks occur without preconditions, has clearly defined enough conditions of his own (though being "too clever by half" by terming them "priorities"). His insistence, for example, that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish State", while viewed an innocent "no-brainer" to most Americans, is an especially loaded term for Arabs. Acceptance of this, unless carefully defined, permanently disenfranchises the 20% of Israel's population who are Palestinian Arabs. It is also intended to rule out any repatriation for Palestinian refugees whose "right to return to their homes" is considered an "existential threat to the Jewish State".
Netanyahu's further insistence on "security guarantees" is also seen as a logical requirement to many in the U.S., but his definition of security is overly broad including an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley while placing severe limits on the independence of the future Palestinian state's ability to control both its territory and access and egress at its borders.
What is especially troubling is the failure of those who are most optimistic about these talks to recognize that the language they use and the framework they have embraced is so thoroughly tone deaf to Palestinian realities and concerns as to be "Pollyannaish", at best, or insulting, at worst. For example, they flippantly toss out terms like "land swaps", "settlement blocks", and "Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem" without any acknowledgment of what they mean to Palestinians or what consequences each has in predetermining realities on the ground. For example, "neighborhoods in Jerusalem" to most Americans sounds like an innocent enough term, but to Palestinians it means sprawling massive settlements like the one on Jabal Abul Ghnaim, which was built, over the strenuous objections of the Clinton Administration, on confiscated land in north Bethlehem. Likewise, maintaining "settlement blocks" and accepting "land swaps" means that Palestinians must recognize as a "fait accompli" prior theft of land to build settlements deep in their territory - colonies that were designed and placed with the goal of making the establishment of a future Palestinian state more difficult. And their easy dismissal of the "right to return" (saying without hesitation or qualification that Palestinians would have to forgo this right and accept, at best, a return only to a future Palestinian state) also ignores what for many Palestinians is the sine qua non of any peace agreement.
Granted that many of these concepts emerged out of earlier Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (like the unofficial "Geneva Accords" - which I supported), but these compromises resulted from hard fought negotiations and were reached under dramatically different circumstances. Back then, the unofficial negotiators sat as peers and each gave way in good faith. Now, these same compromises that were reached as part of a package deal are viewed merely as a starting point for Israel's insistence on yet further compromises. Add to that the fact that back then, conditions were different and the two sides, themselves, were different. There was no barrier/wall delineating unilaterally the de facto Israeli border. There were one hundred thousand less settlers in the West Bank. And there was no political division of the Palestinian polity and territories.
All this considered, I find it hard to be optimistic and, while wanting to be hopeful, that too requires a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, here's what I hope for. I hope that Hamas, which has been critical of the talks, maintains its current restraint and does not engage in reckless and dangerous acts of violence (as it did during the 90's in an effort to sabotage talks). I hope that the Israeli government or its settler movement do not engage either in provocations of their own or act to reignite passions by starting new construction or imposing new hardships on the Palestinians. Should either side behave badly, I hope the U.S. is balanced in its application of pressure. And since it is the U.S. President who wants these talks and understands, and has stated, that success is in "the national security interests of the United States", I can only hope that he has prepared a well thought out "Plan B" should these talks ("Plan A") fail to break the impasse. And finally I might add that I can only hope that this Plan B involves new thinking taking into consideration the just requirements and the concerns not only of the Israelis but of the Palestinian side, as well. This U.S. initiative might not be pretty and most certainly won't be perfect, but it will have to be seen by majorities as fair. Even then it will be a heavy lift requiring the President to sell the necessary compromises to both sides, building a constituency for peace that can reshape the political landscape making an Israeli-Palestinian peace possible.
It may be a lot to hope for, but that's where we are.