Hillary Clinton's Risky Middle East Move

Unless the secretary of State knows something we don't, the Middle East peace talks will fail. And failure is worse than not negotiating.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas joined by Hillary Rodham Clinton during bilateral talks at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt Tuesday Sept. 14, 2010. (Nasser Nasser / AP Photo)

Maybe Hillary Clinton, Washington’s current flavor of the month, knows something the rest of us don’t know. Perhaps the much-heralded secretary of State and the administration’s other Middle East expert, President Obama, have received promises or bankable hints from Israeli and Palestinian leaders that they are prepared to make major compromises. You wouldn’t think the two American leaders would risk the prestige and power of the United States of America on yet another effort to reconcile these two blood enemies without good grounds for doing so, would you?

Let’s hope for all concerned that the Obama administration did not shove Palestinians and Israelis into direct talks, for the first time in over two years, just to get them talking to each other.

Many officials tell me that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel nor President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority came close to giving Mr. Obama any specific indications of compromise in their White House meetings two weeks ago.

The real danger between these two star-crossed inhabitants of the same Holy Land is not failure to negotiate; it’s the failure of the negotiations. Flashpoints in the Holy Land tend to burst after they sit down at the negotiating table, give their speeches, fail to agree, and watch the process collapse. That is when the explosions begin. That is when Palestinian terrorism reignites in Israel. People tend to resort to violence when their hopes and expectations are dashed formally and frontally, not when they are merely hoping.

Reza Aslan: Is Israel Al Qaeda’s New Target?During the last couple of years, while negotiations have been decidedly on the backburner, Israel has been almost entirely free from terrorist attacks emanating from the Palestinian West Bank. Palestinian and Israeli security forces now work together to keep the peace in many West Bank cities, and Palestinian leaders even acknowledge this publicly. There’s also intelligence cooperation between the two sides. All of that could go up in smoke if these talks fail. Indeed, terrorists are likely to shed Israeli and perhaps even Palestinian blood in order to make the talks fail. So, staging a big, formal negotiating session at the seductive and languid Red Sea port of Sharm el-Sheikh is a very risky enterprise…unless Hillary knows something we don’t.

Here’s what the formidable secretary told reporters on Wednesday: "They [the Palestinians and Israelis] are getting down to business and they have begun to grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved through face-to-face negotiations." For good measure, she added, "I believe they are serious about reaching an agreement that results in two states living side by side in peace and security."

Why such confidence? Many officials tell me that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel nor President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority came close to giving Mr. Obama any specific indications of compromise in their White House meetings two weeks ago. In other words, neither offered any concrete basis for accommodation. They spoke only of being serious and bargaining in good faith, the usual stuff. Nor did either leader push Mr. Obama into these talks; Mr. Obama pushed them. Netanyahu wasn’t eager for talks at all, and Abbas favored them only with good and prior indications of success.

Now, one of the biggest hurdles to success—in fact, a big fat wall of failure—will confront them within two weeks. That’s when Israel’s self-imposed freeze on West Bank settlements expires. If Netanyahu does not renew the freeze, the negotiations could easily terminate within a breath of their beginning. So, one has to believe that Obama and Clinton have some kind of assurance from both leaders that a freeze deal can be worked out. Perhaps Israelis will offer a more limited freeze in duration and coverage. Perhaps the Palestinians will buy into this for a limited period. If Obama and Clinton don’t have such assurances, at a minimum, they were reckless to initiate these talks. So, let’s hope they do.

In the event talks do continue after September, there is a basis for progress. That basis rests far less on concrete suggestions of flexibility on specific negotiating issues, and far more on the underlying political situation in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The PA has been vastly improving economic and security conditions in the West Bank for its people, and thereby gaining popular support. For example, last year GDP rose by 8.5 percent, in line with recent years. Schools and other institutions of government have been improving under the incredible leadership of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The heart or emotion behind this progress has been the promise of a Palestinian state, and Abbas’ main aim will be to make this happen. That’s his incentive in this negotiation – and in the end, he can compete with the terrorist group Hamas only by gaining Palestinian statehood from Israel.

Netanyahu’s incentive is also potent, though not quite as strong as Abbas’. It is to maintain good relations with the United States and with the Obama White House. This means not being the fly in the ointment of peace talks. The Israeli hawk understands full well, though he doesn’t like it, that he must burnish and safekeep ties with America. For the time being, that requires good ties with Mr. Obama, whom Netanyahu and his fellow hawks don’t like very much. To them, Mr. Obama sounded too pro-Arab in his first years in office, and they don’t have much trust in him. So, they have to get along with him well enough for at least another year – or until the American presidential election season erupts. At that point, these particular Israelis will pray for rain and a Republican president.

In keeping with this U.S. political calendar, Mr. Obama has set a year deadline for these talks. Fine, if he has a good basis for foreseeing mutual compromises from the old foes. Not fine, if the talks collapse after September or in a year for the denizens of the Holy Land and for America’s power in that volcanic corner of the world.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.