A prelude to talks?
There had never been expectations that President Obama ’s first visit to Israel and Palestine would produce a breakthrough in their stalled peace process. Spokesmen on both sides of the Atlantic had gone out of the way to emphasise that the president had no peace plan in his back pocket. He was on a “listening” tour. But as he flew out , leaving Secretary of State John Kerry to begin to explore new paths to peace, there was at least a positive sense of long-hoped-for US re-engagement.
The Obama message was broad-brush: to Israelis that, no matter what they might hear about his relationship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the US president does care about them and, he says, will do what is necessary to protect them from Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas; to Palestinians that he still holds firm to a belief in an “independent, viable and contiguous” Palestinian state, though adding the rider that it will not be easily achieved.
Not least because the political landscape remains largely unchanged and apparently immovable. On the Israeli side, although elections have brought a new coalition, there is little sign of willingness to halt the provocative settlement-building which Obama described as “counterproductive” and which collapsed the 2010 talks. On the Palestinian side, despite the Arab Spring, the paralysing rift between the PLO’s Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamist Hamas ruling Gaza shows no sign of healing.
But there are growing signs that Abbas and the PLO are increasingly desperate to get back to the table. The New York Times reports that private speaking notes prepared for the Palestinian president’s meeting with Obama proposed he tell the latter that he does not need an open promise from Netanyahu on settlement building before talks could start. “He can pledge to you secretly that he will stop settlement activities during the period of negotiations,” reads one talking point. He may also have warned Obama that a failing, broke Palestinian Authority might have to pack up its bags and cede control of the West Bank to Israel.
On another issue of particular sensitivity to Israel Abbas was due to reassure Obama that the Palestinians will not use their new UN status to press claims against Israel in the International Criminal Court unless it builds settlements in particularly sensitive areas.
Arguing against setting talks preconditions Obama told Abbas that “My argument is even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, may be engaging in activities that the other side thinks is a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get an agreement.” Such flexibility, if manifest, could provide Kerry with important leverage to get things moving. But Abbas will be walking a precarious tightrope in his own community. His willingness to step forward must be reciprocated with evidence that talking pays.