Talks that commenced on Monday in Washington, D.C. between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have, if only for a brief moment, taken the spotlight off of the increasingly unstable situation in Egypt, as well as the ongoing destruction of Syria.
On Monday, Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni was accompanied by Yitzhak Molcho, an intimate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They met for almost two hours over dinner with their Palestinian counterparts, the long-time chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who was flanked by Mohammad Shtayyeh, a central committee member of the Fatah party.
Talks continued into Tuesday, with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and special envoy Martin Indyk presiding over the meeting at various points throughout the two-day event.
Peace negotiations between the two sides have been starting and stopping since both first sat down at the table in the early 1990’s, and last faltered during Obama’s first term over the issue of settlement construction. The construction of settlements on occupied territory is illegal under international law, though settlement building in the occupied West Bank and Gaza has continued apace, and has actually increased dramatically since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993.
Settlements were the ostensible reason for the breakdown of the last attempt to bring the two parties together in 2010, when the Palestinian leadership refused to come to the table without a freeze on the settlement construction that is progressively eating away at what little is left of the pre-1967 configuration of the West Bank.
This time around, however, the parties circumvented this issue to a certain extent, even as Netanyahu used the occasion to announce his government’s approval of further funding for the settlement enterprise, a concession that he has made on past occasions to cajole his intransigent far-right constituency into getting behind talks themselves. The Palestinian side agreed to come to the table in exchange for the release of 104 of the many prisoners that are detained inside Israel.
Palestinians have made other concessions in order to get the conversation going again. They have agreed, at least for the time being, to desist from pursuing Israel via the International Criminal Court, and have also taken the more drastic step of letting off on their bid to achieve statehood at the United Nations.
But the most substantial news to come out of Monday and Tuesday’s meetings is that both sides have agreed to a nine-month time-frame for hammering out an agreement that will solve all of the issues, including the most contentious ones such as the status of East Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees from the wars of 1948, ’67, and ’73. Previously, Palestinian negotiators insisted on an incremental approach that would put off these difficult issues until the final phase of talks.
Still, most who are familiar with the history of the peace talks will be taking a wait-and-see approach. Not only have negotiations run ashore many times on initial high-hopes, but the regional conditions provide a new and somewhat unprecedented variable in the form of Syria, whose civil war has increasingly been undermining the stability of all of its neighbors.
Even without Syria, the usual complications are plenty of cause for pessimism. On the Israeli side, Netanyahu has traditionally only nominally been interested in the peace process, and his right-wing allies in the Israeli Knesset are considerably less keen than he is on giving the Palestinians any land at all. Meanwhile, the woman heading negotiations, former Defense Minister Tzipi Livni, is a foe of Netanyahu, and has political ambitions of her own as she has been vying for the Premiership for some time.
The Palestinians have their own internal divisions to deal with. With Gaza ruled by Hamas, and the West Bank ruled by the Palestine Authority government, both territories have increasingly become like separate countries. Thus it is difficult to see who Saeb Erekat, already distrusted and disliked by a large swathe of the people of both Gaza and the West Bank, is representing in the negotiations.
But these are just some of the complications. The glimmer of hope in this situation would seem to come from the fact that both sides have agreed to see the talks through the full nine months, nomatter how difficult they may become.