Obama's Summit

I feel sorry for the new Israeli-Palestinian talks. A year and a half in the making, a million air miles flown (mostly

    I feel sorry for the new Israeli-Palestinian talks. A year and a half in the making, a million air miles flown (mostly by US envoy George Mitchell) to secure them, and still nobody seems excited about them – they weren't even given a name.

    Even the agreement at Wye River (that came to nothing) was given a name.  So, I’ve called this "Obama’s Summit" because, lets face it, it’s his party.

    On the first news day after the big announcement, the top Hebrew papers chose to lead on Iran and the appointment of a new army chief, rather than news of the resumption of peace talks.  Indeed, in Israel, few seem to care beyond a handful of analysts and politicians.

    In the Palestinian territories, there is a lot of eye rolling going on. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an article, editorial, even a tweet expressing any optimism about the talks.

    Why?  Because the two sides are so far apart?  But isn’t that exactly what these talks are meant to achieve – bridging the gap?  Isn’t talking better than not talking? 

    Yes, if you’re referring to an argument you’ve had with your sibling.  But President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu are not brothers, and in their case, talking may prove to be more dangerous than not.


    Firstly, lets look at the main invitees:

    Israeli PM Netanyahu – it’s being said he is in a weak position vis a vis his coalition. Given its right-wing make up, how can he negotiate anything the Palestinians will agree to, goes the argument.  

    I don’t buy that. Netanyahu has other options if his right-wing partners bail out on him.

    Secondly, what Israeli leader has ever entered talks with the Palestinians without pressure from the right.  Netanyahu in fact comes into these talks in a stronger position than Ehud Barak before Camp David (when his coalition was actually collapsing) or Olmert before Annapolis (suffering domestically after what was seen in Israel as a failed war with Lebanon).  This will be the first time a Likud PM enters talk with the PA about final status issues – in that way it’s unchartered territory.

    Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – he has been pushed into talks after almost two years of professing he won’t do so without a settlement freeze.  Not only does he look weak (even more than before) in front of a Palestinian public losing faith, he goes into these talks in a position of great weakness.  

    The PLO executive committee is deeply divided over this decision, and factions within and outside the PLO have denounced them – saying any deal reached will not be seen as legitimate or binding by them.  The Palestinian house is in a mess – elections overdue and political positions expiring.  

    This is not a good time to enter negotiations with Israel. But the US invitation could not be turned down.


    Given the above, it’s clear the main ones pushing for the party are the Americans.

    Why?  Wanting a solid result on the Israeli-Palestinian track in case the Iraq troop withdrawal goes belly up before midterms in November? Security assessments that the US is not safe unless the conflict is resolved or at least stabilised?  Could be either of those, or a mix of both.

    The September deadline for Israel’s settlement moratorium is fast approaching, perhaps the US saw this as the last opportunity for a push.  But then presumably the US will have to have gotten a guarantee either from the Israelis that the freeze would be extended or from the PA that they would accept the settlement building to continue during the talks.  

    Both sides swear they gave no such promise.  If talks stop on September 26, when the moratorium expires, it will indeed be a historic round of talks, but for all the wrong reasons.


    So we go back to the question of whether it's better to be talking face to face than miles apart through a mediator.  

    When the three leaders – Mr Obama, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas – meet on the White House lawn on September 2, we will do well to keep one thing in mind. This is not a meeting between two equal leaders or even the leaders of two states. This is a meeting where the man chosen (by the US) to represent an occupied people is bargaining with his occupying power.

    We say it a lot but often forget in the midst of handshakes, suits and dinners that the Palestinians are still occupied and this is a summit where Mr Abbas is the weaker party by virtue of that.  The bottom line - this is a summit with the aim of ending Israel’s illegal occupation.

    The talks are happening on PM Netanyahu’s terms.  Nothing in the US invitation was in line with what the Palestinians were asking for, and the Quartet statement on which they pinned all their hopes to was published with little attention.

    Only the Palestinians see it as the framework for the talks.  In public, neither the Americans or the Israelis lent any credence to the statement.  

    What the invitation did do however (and this is seen as the only, however small, victory for the PA) is put a time limit of 12 months on the talks.  But I’m not sure that is cause for optimism.  It can equally be seen as Palestinian resignation to the fact the talks will lead to nothing and so an attempt by the PA to make sure they don’t drag on forever providing a cover for continued settlement building.

    Which takes us to the final point – the dangers of failed talks.  

    A few months after the Camp David Summit in 2000 collapsed with no agreement, the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, broke out.  I’m not saying conditions are the same today but rather that there are often dangerous consequences attached to failed talks.  

    More importantly, the question will be which side is SEEN to have been the reason for the failure. Whoever blinks first will be remembered by the American administration for as long as it remains in power as the spoilers of peace – and that will have an adverse effect on their negotiating power.  

    Both sides are well aware of this and are already posturing ... let the blame game begin.


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