George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the peace process, seems to have succeeded for a second time in getting both Palestinians and Israelis to agree to start proximity talks. The first time around, the talks were sabotaged by an Israeli decision to build 1,600 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem during a visit by Joe Biden, the US vice-president. This time, the situation remains equally delicate.
The two sides give every impression of having been dragged into accepting these negotiations after heavy pressure from the outside, especially the US. Yet their decisions to accept to talk were taken for different and contradicting reasons.
The Israeli decision was taken against the will of a majority of the Israeli Cabinet. There have been reports and "accusations" in Israel that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, might have offered the US administration commitments to freeze or slow settlement expansion. If true, this is a position that hasn’t been approved by his own coalition and hasn’t been made official.
In addition, also according to media reports in Israel, Netanyahu seems to have accepted to negotiate final status issues, including Jerusalem and refugees. This would also be controversial within the current Israeli political leadership, where there is little appetite for such negotiations.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, also found it difficult to agree to resume negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas had to hold a rare vote in the PLO’s Executive Committee, and did so only in an unusual joint meeting with Fatah’s Central Committee. The latter’s inclusion, most observers believe, was an attempt to ensure that strong opposition to a resumption of negotiations without a clear and official Israeli commitment to freezing settlement construction could be overcome. It was, but only with a majority decision.
This is setting aside for a minute the very clear opposition from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, non-PLO factions. Abbas also needed to get support from the ministerial follow-up committee of the Arab League in the face of opposition from Syria and Lebanon.
It all, the situation leaves the parties and the US with a fragile process that can be easily sabotaged by spoilers on both sides, who will keep looking for reasons to prove that they were right. The best way to thwart such negative attitudes is to show progress toward achieving whatever non-contradictory strategic and tactical objectives the sides have.
Palestinians need to see that the substantive aspects of the conflict–i.e., Jerusalem, refugees, water as well as settlement and borders–are being negotiated in accordance and with respect to the agreed terms of reference, particularly the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council, signed agreements and the roadmap. Israelis, meanwhile, have to see that their concerns about security and regional integration are also being negotiated seriously.
It is also important that talks show progress vis-a-vis the parties’ short-term requirements. Here the main determining factors will be Israel’s settlement activity and continued calm on the ground.
The security situation has remained calm for a while now and there is little reason for that to change. The make-or-break issue is, as it has always been, Israel’s settlement behavior. The international community, led by the US, has to do whatever it takes to ensure that Israel does freeze the expansion of settlements. If it fails, the Palestinian leadership will find it hard to continue with indirect negotiations. And if the leadership continues against the will of the majority, this will further weaken its public position. This, in turn, will only play into the hands of the Islamic opposition led by Hamas.
In parallel, the chances of success for this newly renewed process will double if the international community continues to show practical support for and political commitment to the Palestinian government’s program of building the institutions of state and ending the occupation. Such support will have the effect of showing Israelis that there is an alternative to bilateral negotiations if Israel insists on keeping those negotiations hostage to its will by dragging its feet, imposing facts on the ground and manipulating the international preference for a bilaterally negotiated two-state solution.
In fact, there should to be a clear international position that should Israeli actions undermine the talks and thus chances for a bilaterally negotiated solution, there are alternatives. There are significant indicators that the international community is moving in that direction, including the acceptance by first Europe, then the US and finally the Quartet in Moscow of a time frame for negotiations, compatible as it is with the timeframe spelled out in the Palestinian government program.
Finally, it will also be important that the international community encourage reconciliation between the different Palestinian factions. Palestinian unity is an important prerequisite for ensuring any outcome in negotiations. The international community simply needs to promise recognition and continuous support to any national unity government, even if it includes Hamas, as long as such a government is committed to international law and the relevant resolutions of the UN.