The Peace Talks Charade

After two years of raising expectations around the world with hopes of a fresh approach to the Mideast conflict, Reza Aslan says the situation is the same as it was under Bush. Anything short of setting a deadline to establish a Palestinian state will be useless.

09.01.10 11:17 PM ET

Here we go again.

President Barack Obama, in an attempt to restart the moribund Middle East peace process, has invited the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to the White House. The two men broke bread together at a dinner hosted by the president, before launching into the first direct talks in more than 20 months.

Of course, they have been communicating with each other (barely) through Obama’s impotent Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, for months. But this will be the first time that the two sides will meet face to face under Obama’s leadership, meaning after nearly two years of raising expectations around the world with promises of a fresh start and a more balanced approach to the conflict; after two years of talking tough with Israel regarding its settlements and reaching out to the Arab world—Obama has managed to return the situation in Israel/Palestine back to where it was three years ago, under President George W. Bush’s 2007 peace summit in Annapolis.

It is difficult to find anyone who has much good to say about President Obama’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis so far.

One step forward, three steps back. That is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a nutshell.

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Still, it’s good to see that Obama hasn’t lost his celebrated sense of confidence. The White House has said that these talks will tackle all “final status” issues, including East Jerusalem (which Palestinians claim as their future capital), the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees (which no president since Carter has dared bring up), and the final borders of the Palestinian state (which is divided into two—Gaza, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Authority). In other words, Obama has promised to settle all of the issues that four decades of violence have created, and two decades of peace talks have failed to overcome—and he’s going to do it, as Secretary of State Clinton announced last week, in one year… while blindfolded… and with one hand tied behind his back.

Martin Indyk: Learn From Our Mistakes, Mr. PresidentIt’s hard to know if the White House is serious or not (not about the blindfolded thing… I made that part up). It is difficult to find anyone who has much good to say about President Obama’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis so far. The pro-Israel camp faults him for focusing too narrowly on the settlements issue. The pro-Palestine camp criticizes him for backing down on his pledge to be tough with Netanyahu. Neither side has confidence in his ability to broker a deal at all, let alone in a year. A senior Israeli minister in Netanyahu’s government summed up the feelings on both sides by admitting “No one really thinks the peace talks will succeed. But this is how the world judges us, and so we have no choice but to go through with the dance.”

At least Abbas and Netanyahu seem to be playing along with the charade. Both men gave rousing speeches to their constituencies about their enthusiasm for direct peace talks. Abbas called it a “ historic opportunity” and Netanyahu claimed that Israel is “coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples.”

But it did not take long for both sides to retreat to their respective corners, with Abbas claiming that negotiations cannot move forward if the 10-month “settlement freeze” put in place by Israel is not extended, and Netanyahu pledging that he would neither consider the possibility of a divided Jerusalem nor capitulate to another settlement freeze—not with his right-wing supporters threatening to take him down should he do so.

“This is not a time to mince words as this is literally a day of judgment for our prime minister and government,” said Naftali Bennett, the director-general of the Yesha Council, which represents the settlement communities. “If we are not given the legal right to actually build homes for our families and children, we cannot allow this coalition to continue to govern.”

And, as expected, Hamas has made its feelings about the peace talks known by brutally attacking a family of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a not-so-subtle message from Hamas' leaders in Gaza that they have no interest in supporting peace talks that exclude them. Not to be outdone, the Hamas leader-in-exile, Khalid Meshaal, issued a statement from the comfort of his lush, peaceful villa in Damascus—hundreds of miles from the devastation of Gaza—that “there are no Palestinian or Arab reasons for these talks.” Indeed, Meshaal tipped his hand by admitting that if these talks succeed they would “liquidate the Palestinian cause,” by which I’m pretty sure he means they will render him and his feckless cabal in Syria irrelevant.

I recognize that those of us in the media who want peace for Israel and dignity for Palestine are supposed to gush enthusiasm and feign optimism every time a U.S. president gathers the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together in the same room. The situation in the region has become so desperate that we have no choice but to put away our skepticism and confidently declare that “this time things are different… this time there’s hope” (Exhibit A: Martin Indyk in The New York Times).

But it’s hard to be optimistic when we have been using the same playbook for decades and have not come one inch closer to a peaceful resolution to the conflict (Exhibit B: the Madrid Conference, the Oslo Accords, the Hebron Agreement, the Wye Agreement, Camp David, the Sharm El-Sheikh Summit, the Road Map to Peace…). A right-wing Israeli coalition, ruled by a prime minister whose party platform explicitly rejects the possibility of a two-state solution, and a powerless Palestinian leadership at war with itself does not inspire confidence that this time things will be different, this time there is hope.

Wasn’t the whole point of electing Barack Obama to throw away the playbook altogether? Isn’t this the president who staked his reputation on his ability to think outside of the box? Why is it then that, when it comes to the Middle East peace process, he is relying on the same policies—indeed, the same personnel!—that have repeatedly failed to move the Israelis and Palestinians one step closer to peace?

What does “thinking outside of the box” look like? It begins by abandoning the Bush-era idea of trying to play Hamas and Fatah against each other and discarding the notion that the Palestinians can be neatly divided between a “moderate” pro-America camp and “extremist” anti-America one ( Robert Malley and Peter Harling make this point brilliantly in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs). It requires negotiating with Hamas, as both the former director of Mossad and the former head of Israel’s National Security Council have advised, instead of continuing to pretend we can ignore the most dynamic political and social force in the region (Is there anyone left who actually believes that isolating Hamas in Gaza has made it weaker?). It demands that the U.S. tie the billions of dollars in aid that the Israelis and Palestinians receive each year from American taxpayers to their respective obligations in working toward a two-state solution. And it requires doing more than just talking about a Palestinian state, but actually making it a reality.

Here’s a deadline that would actually make a difference: Instead of pretending that all final-status negotiations will be resolved in a year, Obama should announce that on September 1, 2012—two years from the start of this newest round of talks—the United States government, along with the European Union and the United Nations, will be ready to officially recognize the existence of an independent Palestinian state. Ready or not.

That would light a fire under everyone’s seat. It would jolt the region out of its stupor. It would give the Israeli government a deadline to get its act together and, perhaps ironically, shield Netanyahu from the inevitable backlash he would face if he tried on his own to push for a Palestinian state. And it would give the Palestinians in both the West Bank and in Gaza a reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, this time will be different, this time there is hope.

Otherwise, I’m with Israeli lawmaker Meir Sheerit, who, when asked about the new round of talks, said, “The price of peace is well known by everyone. We've been talking about this for 15 years. We don't need to waste any more time.”

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.