The Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks beginning now will almost certainly end in failure. There is little room for optimism regarding these talks or any other form of peace process that brings together the political camps of PM Binyamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas.
The gap between the core beliefs of Netanyahu and Abbas is simply too wide. The former wants to hold on to "united Jerusalem" and the Jordan Valley and is bound by his right-wing coalition to an even more demanding territorial concept, if not to effective neutralization of the two-state concept. His settler allies are sure to look for opportunities to sabotage the talks. Netanyahu himself is building up an "incitement" file with which to batter the Palestinians, even as Israel’s own problem of incitement against Palestinians grows under a reactionary government.
For his part, Abbas insists on the right of return and exclusive Arab control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem–both inevitably deal-breakers. And between his own Fateh hawks and Hamas, Abbas is constrained even further.
To his credit, Netanyahu prefers direct negotiations. It is Abbas who appears to fear face-to-face meetings that might, when they fail, compromise his standing in the eyes of his extremists, and who has linked even his agreement to a mere four months of proximity talks to Arab League approval. Here we have not one but three steps backward for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: indirect rather than direct talks, an Arab veto and a short time limit.
Netanyahu needs these negotiations more than Abbas, and he needs them to last as long as possible. Israel now confronts an active school of thought within the American military that blames the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate for US military difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan and for Iranian and Hizballah propaganda successes in the Arab world. To the extent Israel is held to blame for the stalemate–Abbas, who should be sharing the blame, seemingly gets a pass from his fellow Muslims–it is sustaining serious damage to its image in the halls of power in Washington. The new peace process, however problematic and partial, helps mitigate that damage by enabling US generals in the field to point to at least a temporary US success in cultivating Arab-Israel peace.
In the Netanyahu government, only Defense Minister Ehud Barak appears to understand the gravity of this new linkage equation. Netanyahu thinks everything is fine with America because American Jews still support Israel. Hence he is just plain lucky to have these proximity talks. Under these circumstances, he is not likely to recognize the urgent need to reorganize his coalition and replace right-wingers with centrists.
The advent of proximity talks follows some 15 months of mediation mistakes by the US. Yet the only mitigating factors in this otherwise bleak picture appear to be President Barack Obama’s commitment and the determination of his peace emissary, George Mitchell. If Obama is indeed readying his own final status proposal and/or an international peace conference for the day the failure of these talks can no longer be denied, he should direct his attention away from the looming Netanyahu-Abbas failure –a wise mediator will not step into that huge gap with "bridging" proposals–and toward the only success story in town: the Palestinian Authority’s bottom-up state-building program in the West Bank.
American efforts should focus not only on the hapless task of squeezing success out of doomed proximity talks, but on the inevitable political endgame suggested by the Palestinians’ successful state-building effort: international recognition of their state followed by a concerted effort to focus Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the issues of inter-state borders and security, including in Jerusalem.