10.04.10

The Peace Talks That Kill

When the Middle East peace negotiations kicked off last month, people were killed; now that talks are coming apart, there is more violence.

Bloodshed has bookended the faltering Middle East peace negotiations.

When talks kicked off in early September, Hamas claimed responsibility for the killing of four Israelis in the West Bank; when talks appeared near collapse on Monday, vandals set fire to a West Bank mosque, burning Korans and carpets.

This latest attack, reportedly by Israeli settlers, threatens to fuel another wave of rejectionism, barely a month into negotiations between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the years I've spent covering the region, I've been hard pressed to see any tangible peace dividend from the many rounds of Middle East peace talks. Talks don't seem to constrain the violent actors, and on this occasion seem to have provoked more violence.

Not a single person I interviewed in the Middle East during the last two months expected anything to come of the current talks—certainly not anything good—although, for the record, no one predicted either that a failed peace process would unleash a new intifada or wholesale change in Israeli priorities.

Instead, the Arab diplomats, analysts, and activists who support Hamas and Hezbollah with whom I spoke seemed in accord that for the time being, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians saw anything to gain from dialogue, except for earning chits with Washington.

The main benefit of a peace process, in this view, is that Washington wants one, and so long as it doesn't cost anything, Washington's allies in Ramallah and Jerusalem are happy to oblige.

(The play by Washington, meanwhile, is a little puzzling. Did no one in the Obama administration look at the calendar, when the settlement freeze was under discussion, and try to come up with an expiration date that didn't coincide with the midterm election?)

Later this week, the Arab League will decide whether to authorize the Palestinians to continue negotiations. It's a purely tactical question—none of the leaders or diplomats involved appears to hold out any hope that this round of dialogue is going to be the one that leads to a big breakthrough.

Not a single person I interviewed in the Middle East during the last two months expected anything to come of the current talks—certainly not anything good.

And the whole exercise of the peace talks—all those handshakes, all those meetings—can backfire. What do talks achieve for their advocates in Jerusalem and Ramallah? Don't violent rejectionists on both sides benefit every time another cycle of talks concludes with no results? These latest talks between Netanyahu and Abbas actually seem to have emboldened the gunmen and thugs, the people who ambush passenger cars and set fire to places of worship.

Since the collapse of peace talks at Taba under President Clinton in January 2001, enthusiasm on the ground has dwindled for each round. Since those failed talks, Hamas has only grown stronger in Gaza and the West Bank while the settler bloc has extended its influence in Israel.

Hamas governs Gaza unchallenged but stands squarely outside of the Palestinian Authority and any peace process that it undertakes.

The Jewish settlers and their leaders in the West Bank, for their part, have secured autonomy from Israel's government.

Until both groups join the process, it is largely academic: talks between two governments that lack control over significant portions of their territory and constituents.

At worst, the talks create bloodshed; at best, perhaps, they are irrelevant.

A poll just released by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that two-thirds of the Palestinians polled wanted their leaders to pull out of direct negotiations with Israel.

The same poll shows that levels of support are unchanged for Hamas, which opposed the talks, and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which initiated them, suggesting that the Palestinians didn't punish Fatah for joining the talks, and didn't reward Hamas for apparently trying to sabotage them. In fact, direct negotiations don't seem to have changed the landscape of Palestinian public opinion much at all.

On the Israeli side, meanwhile, it was the settlement expansion moratorium—and not direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority—that provoked political turbulence. Now the political center of gravity seems to have returned to an equilibrium that favors settlement growth.

A few weeks before the current round began in Washington, I was interviewing an Arab diplomat in the region about the parameters of the talks. "How serious do the Arab governments take the prospect of Hamas ultimately joining this process?" I asked. The diplomat burst out laughing. "Who's taking any part of this process seriously? No one here does, I assure you."

All the considerable preparations under way for the talks, in this diplomat's view, were an exercise in futility.

"No one expects a thing to come of this process," the diplomat said. "But we have to go through the motions."

Thanassis Cambanis is the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel. He teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York City. He has covered the Arab world since 2003, including four years as the Boston Globe Baghdad and Middle East bureau chief. He contributes regularly to the Boston Globe, The New York Times, Global Post and Foreign Affairs.