The announcement of next week’s direct talks in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been greeted with buckets of cynicism. It’s a perfectly understandable reaction given the lack of progress toward a Middle East settlement since Mr. Netanyahu returned to office with the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.
Less attention, however has focused on the “why now?” question, whose equally predictable answer has been that the decision to convene the summit was driven by the domestic U.S. political agenda, with President Obama looking for a foreign policy victory before the November mid-term elections.
So, I have a nagging feeling the summit might yet turn into a game-changer. Why else would King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fly to Washington for dinner? I can’t believe President Obama invited them simply to thank them for delivering the Palestinians to the meeting.
As George Mitchell put it last week, when painting a house, it takes a frustrating amount of time to prime the building. But once that is done, the painting itself can be over very quickly. If you look at the language used by both Hillary Clinton and Mitchell last week, they both seemed quietly confident it is right to set a year’s deadline to solve the most intractable “final status” issues: the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state.
President Obama not only has the years of Mitchell’s Middle East experience to draw on — he is the author of the 2001 Mitchell report, which even then called on the Israeli government to freeze settlement expansion — but also that of Bill Clinton at Camp David. It would be irresponsible if the Obama administration had not already had some kind of understanding from the Israelis on the extension of the settlement freeze, which runs out on Sep. 26 and is key to the Palestinian participation in the talks.
Overcoming the Hamas problem in the context of a future Palestinian state looks insurmountable. It would also seem farfetched to suggest Prime Minister Netanyahu has changed. Yet, Mitchell says both the Israeli PM and President Abbas believe they can strike a peace deal in a year. Mr. Netanyahu seems to have convinced President Obama of his sincerity when they met in Washington last month.
One thing President Obama has tried to inject into political life is hope over cynicism — the latter never in short supply in the Middle East. We shall see next week if he can prove the doomsayers wrong.