Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on 7th September 2010, though the post appears to have gone AWOL, so I am re-posting for posterity.
The assistant to the US president for counter-terrorism and homeland security, John Brennan, recently described Middle East peace talks as a “tradition” in which every American president must partake.
Describing US commitment to a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians as a “tradition” is perhaps an exaggeration – serious American involvement with peacemaking between the two sides only really came about in 1991 with the Madrid Conference and then dropped off significantly with the George W. Bush administration.
However, it seems reasonable to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement on the 20 August that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would begin meeting for direct talks in Washington on the 2 September, as a continuation of previous US attempts to bring about a resolution to the conflict.
These were the first face-to-face negotiations between the two sides in about two years and Clinton appears confident (at least publicly) that something positive can come out of them within a year. The general reaction from commentators has been less enthusiastic. Stephen Walt, the prominent Realist and blogger for Foreign Policy, claims that the peace process is “going nowhere” and that if you think differently “you haven’t been paying attention for the past two decades (at least).” While it would be nice to believe otherwise, the pessimists are probably right.
The first big test will come on the 26 September when a 10-month freeze on settlement building in the West Bank will come to an end. The Palestinians claim that this freeze must be extended for negotiations to continue (the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat has told CNN, “The non-extension of the moratorium on settlements will mean that we will not have negotiations. It’s as simple as this,”).
However, it seems very unlikely that the freeze will be extended. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu has told Likud ministers,
“We made no proposals to the Americans on extending the freeze…We said that the future of the communities will be discussed as one of the elements of a final-status settlement, along with the other issues. We promised nothing on this issue to the Americans.”
This highlights one of the fundamental differences between the two-sides. The Palestinians wish for the talks to have preconditions (i.e. a freeze on settlement construction) and the Israelis want no preconditions, instead preferring more open-ended discussions along the Oslo lines.
David Ignatius argues that the only way Washington managed to get both sides to agree to these talks is by sending them subtly different signals about what is expected of them, and then hoping that neither side will want to be seen as the spoiler by pulling out. This is evidenced by the fact that Clinton announced that talks “should take place without preconditions”, an obvious bid for Israeli involvement; while the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, has said that both sides should “refrain from taking any steps that are not conducive to making progress”, an obvious plea to Netanyahu not to resume settlement building because this would anger the Palestinians.
There are some more fundamental reasons to be sceptical about these talks and the two-state solution in general. On the Israeli side there are a number of issues. Firstly, Israelis themselves are generally sceptical about the ‘land for peace’ formula that is at the heart of the two-state solution. From their perspective, they tried this with Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005) and ended up with two wars.
Secondly, Netanyahu heads a very right-wing coalition that will create many problems for him if he makes too many concessions, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem and refugees. He is himself a sceptic of the two-state solution as well, and the Likud party that he heads has traditionally been inspired by ‘revisionism’ – the right-wing of Zionism that believes Israel has a right to the whole of historical Palestine. 
He has also laid out his vision of a Palestinian state in a speech he gave at Bar Ilan university, in which he stated:
“…in any peace agreement, the Palestinian area must be demilitarized. No army, no control of air space. Real effective measures to prevent arms coming in, not what’s going on now in Gaza. The Palestinians cannot make military treaties.”
It is unlikely that this idea of a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty is going to find much support on the Palestinian side.
Finally, the most intractable of all the problems is the existence of the settlements. There are about 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is a huge number of people to physically relocate; the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza caused uproar and this involved the removal of only 8000 people. There is a serious concern that any attempt to dismantle the many Israeli colonies that are scattered throughout the West Bank could lead to civil war as many in the military refuse to carry out their orders. This is admittedly a worst case scenario but the prospect highlights how deeply embedded Israel is in the West Bank. 
Also, it is not just the Israelis who face problems; the Palestinians have many obstacles to overcome too. The most significant one of all is arguably the division between Hamas and Fatah. In 2007 Hamas took control of the Gaza strip and since then a bitter rivalry has existed between the two Palestinian factions. Hamas has predictably made clear its opposition to these talks with Israel.
The leader of the Islamist organisation, Khaled Meshal, has described the talks as illegitimate and the result of coercion by Washington. Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has also been quoted as saying that Palestinian negotiators are not mandated to surrender Jerusalem or any other part of Palestine.
Washington’s hope is that by securing a peace deal between the Fatah administration in the West Bank and Israel, Gazans will recognise that the path of negotiation is more fruitful than the path of violent resistance. However, this may well end up just being wishful thinking. The only thing that will turn Palestinians against rejectionist groups like Hamas is if there is a significant improvement in their day-to-day lives – and with the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip remaining intact, and limited infrastructure, this is highly improbable.
So, all in all, the pessimists are probably right. It is very unlikely that these talks will produce anything of any lasting worth. A more likely scenario is that the talks will break down and be followed by acrimonious debate over who was responsible for their failure. Sadly given the context, the most we can justifiably hope for is that direct talks are not going to descend into yet another round of violence.
 Netanyahu’s 100-year old father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, was a one-time secretary to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of ‘revisionism’. Apparently Netanyahu is very influenced by his father. One of Netanyahu’s Knesset allies told the writer Jeffrey Goldberg that it is unlikely that there will be an independent Palestinian state until Ben-Zion is dead, “Bibi could not withdraw from more of Judea and Samaria and still look into his father’s eyes.” Hopefully, considerations other than his father’s approval will influence the Israeli PM’s thinking.
 Although, it is important to remember that the French colons were in Algeria from 1830 until 1962 and they still pulled out. Having said that, however, Israel/Palestine is a tiny area and so separation between the two sides might not be so simple.