Thursday, September 24, 2009

No Great Moments at Abbas, Netanyahu, Obama Meeting

Yesterday, Obama managed to herd the cats, Abbas and Netanyahu into a meeting to talk about jump-starting peace talks. Obama was apparently rather terse and blunt in the meeting (at least the parts open to the public) and told the two leaders that the time has come for action and that talking about talking was useless.

Of course, the next step planned out was to set up meeting to talk about talking some more. A series of low level meetings between Palestinian and Israeli officials are to take place over the coming weeks to lay the groundwork for serious negotiations between the sides. What's noteworthy, however, is that both sides walked away from the meeting with Obama with vastly different impressions of where they stood.

Netanyahu left the meeting feeling that the demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity has been dropped while Abbas left the meeting feeling that Israel's next step was to withdraw to the pre-67 borders. Obviously, there's a deep misunderstanding on even fundamental questions such as who does what next.

Obama made clear that he felt that this next, anticipated round of talks should begin where they left off, that nothing starts from scratch. According to Netanyahu in this interesting interview he gave to CNN (worth reading in toto) Netanyahu is explicit that he does not believe there are any previous agreements with the Palestinians. He has also made clear that he does not consider himself bound by any agreements made by previous governments. This of course places him diametrically opposed to Abbas who points out that the roadmap to peace calls for a full settlement freeze, a somewhat problematic assertion considering that Netanyahu doesn’t seem to believe he is bound by the roadmap. The interview reiterates the point made by Netanyahu in his foreign policy address earlier in the summer that the major obstacle to peace was the failure of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

The reaction to the talks in Israel have been largely uniform as well, no matter which point on the political spectrum they originate from. The uniformity is in criticism. Settlers and those to the right of Netanyahu say that he did not go far enough in defending the settlements while those to his left also say he's not done enough--rather he's done nothing. Other editorialists have commented that the whole meeting was really just a joke and that it didn't even mark the start of a real peace process.

This is simply wrong and a failure to read between the lines. First, consider that the two leaders, even if it was against their will, met face to face to talk about how to move forward, peacefully. Second, consider that low level talks will be taking place between the two sides to lay the groundwork for more serious discussions. The indications are that communications and discussions will be taking place and that these will be monitored at the highest levels of the US government, meaning, no doubt, that the highest levels of the Israeli and Palestinian governments will be keeping a short leash on their low level officials, watching what happens at every step of the way. It is this dialogue, these murmurs between Israelis and Palestinians which could ultimately bring about better understanding of the other's negotiating position and more efficient ways of moving it forward.

Indeed, one glimpse of this improved understanding is perhaps the most fascinating incident of the whore meeting. While underscoring the vast lack of understanding many Israelis have of Palestinians, Israeli foreign minister Lieberman commented on how impressed he was by Palestinian negotiator Erekat's excellent Hebrew. How strange that an Israeli foreign Minister should be surprised that the lead negotiator of a government speaks the language of his neighbor and partner for negotiations well. It would behoove more Israelis to learn Arabic, one day, they may need those linguistic skills for tourism.


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