There is no good reason to expect anything different this time. But why not? Have direct face-to-face talks. Let the Israeli Prime Minister of a right-wing government meet with the disputed President of the Western portion of what the diplomatic community calls the Palestinian Authority. Anything must be better than the slow, steadily meaner conflict simmering just below a likely regional conflagration that threatens American interests in the region. Right? Anything!!
Bring out the same tired players; the same American diplomats who have been peace processing the Israeli-Arab conflict since the 1980s; the same EU ambassadors; the same eviscerated Arab autocrats and puny Arab monarchs; the same Israeli and Palestinian professional staffs of diplomats, intelligence officers, and security personnel; bring it all on!
It's been some time since Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have been in the same room together. In Netanyahu's previous premiership, Netanyahu played hard to get before shaking hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Wye River, Maryland in 1996. It took a great deal of cajoling 50 weeks ago to get the two to shake hands (with Obama prodding) in New York City in a photo op of no consequence. The last time Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the issues of war & peace in direct negotiations, 14 years ago, Bill Clinton was POTUS, Madeline Albright the SecState, and Dennis Ross was running the operation. The negotiations went on directly for over a week, and Bibi even tried to extract Jonathan Pollard in exchange for his grudging concurrence. What came out was a weak, soon-ignored document -- the Wye River Memorandum, may its memory be for a blessing. Within months Bibi was booted out of office by a frustrated Israeli electorate and the molasses-like intransigence of Netanyahu gave way to Ehud Barak, with a far more creative -- some might say reckless -- approach to the conflict. Neither Bibi's way nor Ehud's way worked out; but here they are in 2010, locked arm-in-arm -- two brash old men who think they can outwit and outmaneuver anything the Americans or the Arabs can throw at them.
Arafat was far more interested in the approach of Ehud Barak when Bibi was replaced, but Arafat would not deliver his movement over to the US-brokered Israeli offer until it was too late. He died years later. Arafat's disappearance, and continued Israeli pressure from a right-leaning Ariel Sharon, caused Palestinian political, security, and military institutions to unravel. What's left of Arafat's infrastructure is holed up in the West Bank; the newer, perpetually hostile vanguard movement HAMAS controls the southern and sinking satellite of Gaza. What role will HAMAS have to play in these soon-to-begin direct talks? Answers the new elder statesman of American foreign policy, George Mitchell - "none." Not smart.
Amazingly, Dennis Ross is giving it yet another try. Can't fault the guy for being persistent.
President Barack Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for not being George W. Bush, wants to try to use the hopefulness of the "direct talks" to help with domestic politics. Nothing looks Nobel Peace-prize worthy like a summit at the White House between implacable enemies.
Bound to fail? Is there anything anywhere that indicates the slightest change, even a hint that a breakthrough is in the offing?
I just don't see it. My friend Tommy says that the Americans can't want Middle East peace more than the parties to the conflict, the Israelis and the Palestinians. But it sure seems that as you look out at the lineups and the starting pitchers, the umps want to be on the field more than the players.
Not a great way to begin the New Year and end Ramadan. Play ball!