The Middle East Channel

Proximity talks: prospects for success?

Proximity talks: prospects for success?

The last time Israelis and Palestinians negotiated directly, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made some striking offers on territory and Jerusalem. At the time, September 2008, President Mahmoud Abbas did not respond, in all likelihood because Olmert was already on his way out of office and American elections were impending. This was a serious mistake by Abbas, as he failed to lock in Israeli positions that Palestinians had not heard before.

Eighteen months later, the U.S. is about to launch proximity talks. Palestinians and Israelis will apparently not meet face to face. The terms of reference for these talks reportedly are not very detailed. And, the U.S. will not be expecting or requiring the parties to pick up where things left off. In all, this appears to be a poor excuse for American diplomacy and a recipe for the slow but ultimate demise of this round of peace making. If the past is any guide, the only hope is for the U.S. to play a creative, determined, bold, pro-active role… something we are still awaiting from the Obama administration.

What’s right and wrong with proximity talks? Aaron Miller is quoted in The Washington Post as saying the two sides are not ready to speak directly to each other and thus proximity talks could legitimize the U.S. role as an honest broker. Others, myself included, believe that proximity talks take us back almost twenty years, to a time when the two sides were not talking to each other at all. They basically throw overboard much of the substantive progress achieved during years of face to face negotiations.

Even so, can proximity talks move the process of peacemaking forward? Can they build trust between the parties and build confidence in the U.S. role? The answers to these questions depend largely on how seriously the U.S. takes its role.

In view of the challenging circumstances on the ground — especially the almost total lack of trust between the parties — the role of the U.S. in proximity talks becomes outsized. Going into these talks, therefore, we need to have a strategy, that is, a view of where we want and expect the parties to end up. Until now, such a U.S. vision has been missing. The most we have said, as articulated by Secretary of State Clinton, is that the United States would seek "an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles" two competing visions: "the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements." This is not enough. We know the competing visions of the two parties. Now we need to know what the U.S. vision is – and what it is willing to do to get it.

The administration needs a multi-pronged strategy for realizing its vision of peace, incorporating a substantive, U.S.-drafted negotiations agenda that defines where the negotiations should begin and channels the negotiations toward possible agreements. This requires a strong willingness to be pro-active and intervene in the talks in order to narrow gaps and bridge differences. It should include an effort to build regional and international support structures and "safety nets" for the process, with particular emphasis on the Arab Peace Initiative. It might involve the revival and restructuring of multilateral discussions on issues such as economic development, regional infrastructure, health, water, environment, security and arms control, and the like. It also will need continued efforts to freeze settlements and promote Palestinian efforts to uproot terrorist infrastructure and end incitement, and more resources and support for Palestinian state-building and security reform measures.

None of this guarantees success. But without a strong American vision, a strong American strategy, and determined American diplomacy, failure seems guaranteed.

Daniel Kurtzer is a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.