And we’re off! Â The proximity talks have officially begun.
That’s right: the discussions-before-the-discussions are underway. Â The Palestinian Authority, after receiving assurances from the U.S. and Israel, has finally agreed to sit down to the American-brokered indirect negotiations. Â Special envoy George Mitchell’s shuttling back and forth between the two parties now, and all onlookers agree that….ummm……errrrr……..well, most onlookers seem to think that…
To be honest, no one really knows what to make of the situation or where it will lead. Â I, as always, am cautiously optimistic that Obama will be able grease the wheels of negotiation and, in a year or two, look on with knowing satisfaction as Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas shake hands across the newly-formed borders partitioning their respective Jerusalems in a warm-up to the grand Nobel stage in Oslo. Â I mean, if Barack can pass health care reform – and quite possibly, financial reform – in spite of the Tea Party (and the Republican Party and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich and, well, you get the idea) and if George Mitchell can out steroid users (the man SAVED baseball, people), surely they can work something out here. Â Right?
Not so fast. Â In actuality, the task here might be insurmountable; Obama’s nearly admitted as much. Â The following are just a few of the obstacles and potential dealbreakers standing in the way:
- Where’s Hamas? Like it or not, the majority of Palestinians support them, not Abbas’ PA. Â Granted, that is more a reflection of geography than anything else, but the fact remains. Â It could prove difficult for the PA – and Israel – to unilaterally impose an agreement upon Hamas and the people of Gaza. Â (Note: this could be easier than expected. Â As of late, Hamas leaders have began quietly accepting Israel’s existence and appear open to a two-state solution.)
- Settlements are still being built. Despite the so-called freeze on new construction in Jewish settlements, work is underway in many, though under the guise of additions or renovations. Â If something akin to the ill-fated announcement of 1600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo during Joe Biden’s visit occurs during these negotiations, the Palestinians will pull out faster than you can say ‘shalom.’ Â Or ‘salaam.’
- Netanyahu says he wants peace: Total BS or just 50 percent? As much as he can talk about his “outstretched hand,” Bibi will be judged not by what he says but by what he does. Â And in his case, what he’s done – continued settlement building, the National Heritage list fiasco, the roadblocks, arrests, etc. – drone out whatever he says. Â Even this morning, after the start of proximity talks, the Air Force launched an attack on sites in Gaza after a lone Qassam rocket, one almost certainly not fired by Hamas, exploded harmlessly outside Ashkelon this weekend. Â If anything, actions like this, particularly in Gaza, will only foment anti-peace sentiment.
- This might be the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. When PM Netanyahu opted to ally with far-right parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu outfit as opposed to center-right Kadima, many felt the prospects of peace flew out the window. Â This could very well be true. Â Personally, I’d be surprised if the Knesset’s ultrareligious and/or neocon hawks didn’t make these negotiations exceedingly difficult.
- Israeli Arabs are left out in the cold. Under the two-state solution, what happens to the Arabs that are already citizens of Israel? Â Surely, they will face continued – and perhaps increased – persecution and discrimination. Â The prospects of a stable Israel look more and more grim when considering the repercussions of so many marginalized citizens.
- The right of return. There’s no doubt that many in the Palestinian community will demand the right to return to their homes or land in Israel. Â And, there’s no doubt that Israelis will refuse. Â Truthfully, there’s not much for these people to come back to; their homes are gone or long-since repossessed, as is their land. Â The best bet for progress on this front would be some sort of reparations.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of issues to resolve over the next four months and beyond. Â In fact, there are even more that I won’t get into here (most notably, Israel’s insistence on a military presence along the banks of the Jordan River). Â But make no mistake about it, these talks are a step in the right direction. Â Will these indirect negotiations directly lead to peace? Â Probably not.
But, could they pave the way for a tangible peace agreement down the line, one that provides the basis for two independent, viable states? Â I wouldn’t bet against it.
Sam Melamed is a Masa participant, participating in Career Israel, one of Masa Israel‘s 160 programs.