September 16, 2010

Middle East peace within the year - really?

Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmud 'Abbas

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is "within reach." We can expect it within the year. Finally, after all these years of efforts by successive failed interlocutors, Hillary Clinton brings us peace in the Middle East. Perhaps I should start selling "Countdown to Peace" calendars....

Pardon my sarcasm.

There may have been positive steps made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud 'Abbas that advances the process, but a statement that peace between the two parties is imminent is misleading at best and bordering on dishonest at worst. I would have thought that over a year and half experience as Secretary of State would have taught her something about the Middle East peace process in general and the Israeli-Palestinian track in particular.

Mrs. Clinton's words: "With the commitment of an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian president who both embrace the goal of a two-state solution, peace is once again within reach." She added that Netanyahu and 'Abbas "can make the difficult decisions necessary to resolve all the..issues within one year."

The two-state solution is not in question here. The questions that need to be addressed in the near term revolve around continued Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank and the ability of 'Abbas to represent all of the Palestinians. Just today, in fact just after Mrs. Clinton's declaration, Netanyahu stated that the moratorium on settlement construction will not be extended despite pleas by both Clinton and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak. That moratorium, of course, is a key requirement for the Palestinians to continue the talks. 'Abbas has threatened to leave, not unexpectedly.

There is also the issue of Palestinian representation. Mahmud 'Abbas is the President of the Palestinian Authority, not exactly representative of all Palestinian entities. 'Abbas is also the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization which, despite being recognized by the United Nations, Israel and over 100 countries as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," does not speak for all parties that have a stake in the talks. I am specifically referring to Hamas, but also includes a variety of other groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Not everyone is getting ready to order their peace-in-one-year calendars. A senior Palestinian official described the talks as "difficult and made no progress." Yet, American special envoy George Mitchell said the talks were "serious and substantive" and that there was "progress" on the settlements issue.

The words "serious and substantive" is Washington diplo-speak meaning that absolutely nothing was accomplished but we have to say something positive. I really would like to hear Mr. Mitchell's definition of "progress." When the Israelis refuse to halt settlement construction, and the Palestinians threaten to leave the talks, I am having a difficult time accepting that as progress.

Here is the Reuters take: "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Thursday with no visible sign of progress on breaking a deadlock over building in West Bank settlements." Again, how do you define progress?

I spent the majority of my career either in the Middle East or in Washington working Middle East issues. I have lived, worked, taught, traveled, conspired and fought in the Middle East. I fervently want there to be peace throughout the region. As far as the Israeli-Palestinian track of the peace process: I support Israel's right to exist, and I support the right of the Palestinians to have a state.

That said, there are serious issues between the two sides. I am not so arrogant as to claim that I have the answers. Obviously, neither do Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Mitchell have the answers. The jury is still out on their arrogance.

When dealing with an issue of this import, we need honest brokers who are committed to real solutions, not empty rhetoric about peace within a year. This, I am afraid, is merely empty rhetoric.