Obama sets himself up for failure on peace talks




 
During his first eight months in office, Obama pursued this goal by repeatedly calling on Israel to freeze its settlement of Palestinian land to set the right tone for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. In the face of Israeli intransigence, however, he made an abrupt volte face on the sidelines of last fall’s U.N. General Assembly session, declaring, “It is past time to talk about starting negotiations — it is time to move forward,” even while ongoing Israeli colonization of Palestinian land made the ostensible goal of these negotiations — a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict —increasingly unlikely.
 
Since then, the Obama administration has arm-twisted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table, a step desperately desired by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ease his country’s growing international isolation.  Abbas finally cried uncle, allowing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell to announce the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under Washington’s auspices on Sept. 2.
 

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Having spent almost the first half of his term and much political capital in getting Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table, has Obama, in his own words, “give[n] those negotiations the opportunity to succeed”?  Given the context in which these negotiations will take place, the answer is a resounding no.
 
For Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to be successful, they need clear guiding principles, or “terms of reference” in diplomatic parlance. Yet, the United States has pointedly refused to convene the negotiations under such terms, with Mitchell arguing, “Only the parties can determine terms of reference and [the] basis for negotiations” for themselves.
 
This unfocused approach flies in the face of best practices from previously successful Israeli-Arab peace talks. Egypt and Jordan signed enduring peace treaties with Israel firmly anchored in U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which mandates Israel to return Arab territory occupied in the 1967 war. On the other hand, negotiations have to date failed with Syria and the Palestinians because Israel has sought to illegally annex territory acquired by force and keep in place some of its illegal colonies established there. This pattern augurs strongly for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to be called with clear terms of reference to international law, human rights, and U.N. resolutions.
 
Without such clear terms, Israel is free to marshal its overwhelming asymmetry of power in relation to the Palestinians to disregard its obligations under international law and U.N. resolutions. Instead, as in previous failed rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Palestinian rights will be subordinated to Israeli “security interests.” If previous Palestinian negotiating teams have refused to sign humiliating Israeli offers shorn of sovereignty, independence and human rights, then there is no reason to expect that they will do so this time around either.
 
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Another problematic aspect of the negotiations is that they lack a timeline, providing Israel with ample opportunity to dither through more years of talks while increasing its pace and scope of colonizing Palestinian land, as it did during the 1990s negotiations.  Clinton believes talks “can be completed within one year,” and of course they could if Israel were to declare that it was finally prepared to fully end its 43-year occupation of Palestinian territory and dismantle its system of apartheid described by President Jimmy Carter and a growing number of observers.   
 
However, Israeli political leaders do not inspire confidence that they are entering into these negotiations in good faith; even less do they evince a readiness to end Israel’s domination over Palestinians. In a recently leaked video from 2001, an evidently proud Netanyahu bragged how “I actually stopped the Oslo Accord[s],” shorthand for the failed 1993-2000 Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process. His Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a settler living on expropriated Palestinian land who has often advocated for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Unless a leopard can change its spots, it borders on the absurd to expect Palestinians to garner even an appearance of fairness, justice, and national rights from these interlocutors.
 
Given the history of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations breeding cynicism, despair, and paroxysms of violence, the Obama administration has embarked on an extremely risky gamble to reconvene Israeli-Palestinian talks under such unpropitious circumstances. Having the audacity to hope for successful negotiations without demanding a fundamental change in Israel’s policies toward Palestinians is a failed strategy.      
 
Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of more than 325 organizations working to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality.