For the first time in 20 months, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will sit down face-to-face in Washington, DC this week. Building on a year and a half of shuttle diplomacy “proximity talks” shepherded by George Mitchell, the White House’s Middle East envoy, this Wednesday, September 1, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will sit down with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.
There’s been broad skepticism surrounding these talks from the get-go. Is the Obama administration convening talks for domestic political reasons within a pessimistic geo-political environment, or because there’s actual hope? My colleague Will Marshall shares this decidedly luke-warm take: “It’s not hard to find grounds for pessimism,” he wrote last week here on ProgressiveFix.
Here are five ways to gauge the talks’ success:
Yes, yes – a press conference ain’t much, what with the security and happiness of millions hanging in the balance. But the mere act of holding a joint press conference with Obama stewarding Abbas and Netanyahu at least indicates the talks were a basis for some extraordinarily cautious optimism. It would be better than, say, both leaders departing quietly in the middle of the night without so much as a word to the cameras. But this is the low bar the situation demands.
2. Netanyahu’s position on the settlement moratorium
Upon assuming office last year, Netayahu issued a 10-month moratorium on construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It is due to expire in late September, and Netanyahu, facing right-wing pressure from within his coalition, has said that building will resume.
It is, of course, a shame that the extraordinarily complex issue of where and how to build settlements has been reduced to the binary choice of “build” or “don’t build”. That’s why if Netanyahu, fresh off a positive meeting with Obama in July, can finesse his pledge to continue construction (and please his political base) while giving ground somewhere to show the Palestinians and Obama that he’s serious, we might be in business.
3. Level of buy-in from the “moderate” Middle Eastern countries
Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are planning to attend. While neither leader is on extraordinarily solid political ground domestically (which may turn out to be the understatement of the year for Mubarak, who faces a potentially explosive election), Abbas needs their blessing to create breathing room with the likes of the nay-sayers in the Arab League, who are already predicting failure but remain generally supportive of talks because of Obama’s “sincerity”. Building an Arab coalition around a deal is key, so watch whether they are vocally supportive of the meeting and what message they take back home.
4. A statement from Hillary Clinton
She’ll be the direct intermediary between the two, so watch her closely. Everything from body-language to expression to the actual words out of her mouth will be important. If there’s a tense, negative air surrounding the talks, the Secretary might just literally embody them.
5. Reactions in Israeli press
Israel has a wide selection of English language publications of good quality, like the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. Keep an eye on what they’re saying – for them, the talks will be issue #1 this week and will no doubt maintain lively commentary. They were the bell-weather for Netanyahu’s trip to DC in July, and the Israeli English-language press deemed that trip a success, which became the de facto public narrative.
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