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Hope and Pessimism as Israelis and Palestinians Resume Talks

WASHINGTON, Oct 4 2013 (IPS) - Israeli and Palestinian negotiators returned to the negotiating table on Thursday, ready to put claims by the United States that it will engage more forcefully in the negotiating process to the test. The talks, which paused for the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, have been struggling amidst Palestinian complaints of Israeli foot-dragging and the lack of U.S. participation.

Secretary of State John Kerry announces that Ambassador Martin Indyk will serve as the U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations on Jul. 29, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department

Secretary of State John Kerry announces that Ambassador Martin Indyk will serve as the U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations on Jul. 29, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department

Yet for all the enthusiasm around the revived peace talks, there remains considerable doubt about the prospects for ultimate success. Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, a non-profit organisation working to raise funds to aid the Palestinian people, believes it unlikely that a permanent agreement will be possible. “Ideally, all parties would like a comprehensive agreement, except Israel wants one on their terms, the Palestinians want on their terms, and the U.S. wants something that can stick,” he told IPS.

“None of these goals are really in line now. Israeli and Palestinian positions are so far apart that the U.S. may want to save face with an interim agreement. It would be in Israel’s interest at very little cost to them but at a high cost to the Palestinians. And this would be a disaster.”

Yet some see hope as dovish lobbying groups are gaining more prominence in Washington. The moderate group J Street appears to have overcome attempts by more hawkish pro-Israel groups, such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to marginalise it.

This week, U.S. President Barack Obama dispatched his vice president, Joe Biden, to speak at J Street’s annual conference and rally its supporters behind the peace-making efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry. Biden’s appearance, along with those of Obama’s special envoy Martin Indyk, Israel’s lead negotiator Tzipi Livni and Israeli opposition leader Shelly Yachimovitch, as well as House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, offered strong evidence that J Street has established itself as a significant force here.

“It’s become an accepted notion that there is not only one mass movement lobbying org in DC, which is AIPAC,” Ori Nir, spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now (APN) told IPS. “What J Street can do now, having been around for five years, it can authentically and credibly claim that its positions [supporting robust negotiations for peace] represent the pro-Israel community much more authentically than the traditional leadership. That puts wind in the sails of the Obama administration.”

Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel and a top Middle East policymaker under former President Bill Clinton, believes there is a real chance for success in the current talks. “We’ve agreed to intensify the talks, and the U.S. will increase its involvement,” Indyk said at the conference. “All the core issues are on the table and our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim one.

“The parties have agreed to resolve all the issues in nine months,” he continued. “Both sides have negotiated for years. The outline of an agreement is clear. What is needed is leadership and political decisions.” However, Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, and former senior policy adviser to Oslo Accords architect Yossi Beilin, expressed strong scepticism about the current talks.

“I don’t see [Netanyahu] as having walked toward a realistic two-state solution,” Levy said. “From what I understand there is a refusal to present a map, not even of the borders of the settlement blocs. He wants to not remove any settlements and maintain an ongoing military presence… “I fear that we may repeat some of the old mistakes: an over-emphasis on bilateral negotiations, lack of a frame of reference, and a fetishisation of process [over results].”

J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben Ami, laid out his vision for a two-state solution, emphasising that both sides would have to make sacrifices. On the Israeli side, this includes sharing Jerusalem and evacuating some settlements.

 
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