Three presidents, a prime minister, and a king sat together in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 1. It was the eve of the beginning of Middle East peace negotiations, and each declared his determination to finally bring peace to a region plagued by violence for over six decades.
But their subtle optimism was overshadowed by events from the night before and thousands of miles away. As four Israeli citizens – a married man in his 20s, a married mother in her 30s, and a couple in their 40s – were driving home in the West Bank, their car was ambushed by gunmen from Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls the Gaza Strip. All four were killed.
And so it goes.
Every American president since Jimmy Carter has tried – and ultimately failed – to bring peace to the Middle East. In fact, the peace process has, at times, had the reverse effect, resulting in increased violence. The failure of Bill Clinton’s Camp David Summit in 2000, for example, resulted in the second Palestinian Intifada, or violent uprising, which killed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians. And the lack of success after George W. Bush’s 2007 Annapolis Conference eventually led to Israel’s war on Gaza in 2008.
But now it’s President Barack Obama’s turn to step into the ring. Obama will mediate face-to-face peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose secular Fatah party controls the West Bank. The talks will be aided by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab states that have made peace with Israel.
The ultimate goal of this latest round of negotiations will be to establish a Palestinian state composed of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which Israel annexed in a 1967 war, that can exist peacefully next to Israel.
But that may prove difficult to accomplish with a divided Palestinian leadership. Since 2007, the Gaza Strip has been controlled by Hamas, which both the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization and, therefore, have excluded from peace negotiations. Although Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it still maintains some 10,000 Israeli troops and numerous roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank that render ordinary life virtually impossible for the area’s 2.5 million Palestinians.
Another obstacle facing Obama that may kill his peace process before it even gets off the ground is Israeli settlements. After heavy pressure was put on Netanyahu to cease settlement construction in the West Bank, which Palestinians considered a precondition to peace talks, he agreed to impose a temporary moratorium. That moratorium, however, is due to expire on Sept. 26 and – so far – Netanyahu has resisted calls to extend it. Abbas has signaled that he will end talks if Israeli construction in the Palestinian territory continues.
But despite these obstacles, there are a few encouraging signs that separate this peace process from its failed predecessors. Chief among them is the relative stability of the West Bank – a result of both economic growth and an improved security situation there.
Much of this success stems from the increasing competence of the Palestinian Authority, the administrative apparatus of the Palestinian territories. Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the P.A., has played a crucial part in this process. His state-building initiatives have resulted in more reliable basic services, a number of new schools and housing complexes, and increased government revenue. The more capable the P.A. is, the more likely Israel will be willing to transfer control of the West Bank.
While all sides support the creation of a Palestinian state, there remain a number of issues, known as “final status” issues, that have plagued past negotiations and will be key points of contention in this round as well. In addition to the aforementioned issue of Israeli settlements, these issues also include Israeli security, the status of Jerusalem, the exact borders of a Palestinian state, and the status of the three to four million Palestinian refugees who fled Israel after 1948.
At their first meeting on Sept. 2, leaders restated their commitment to the two-state solution but failed to make any progress on the final status issues. However, all issues are to be solved in a comprehensive deal that will force the two sides to compromise and acknowledge the other’s compromises. Negotiators will also try to keep the talks under wraps so as to prevent any leaks that could prove politically embarrassing to either side.
Obama has also stated his intention to solve these final status issues within a year. According to Jen Ziemke, a professor of international relations at John Carroll University, “In order for the one-year deadline to be considered a success, progress must be made on the issue of settlements and the right of return. Ideally, a realistic but specific timetable will be set during this year that will mark the transition period toward the full establishment of the two-state solution.”
However, some sort of compromise on settlement construction will have to be made soon if talks are to continue. “The key to unlocking this puzzle is to find a solution in which both sides can return back to their constituents and claim that their side won. The precise details of any agreement matter very much, down to specifications about the how, where and when,” said Ziemke.
“Even more important, however, is the language used by both sides to describe the terms of the agreement. The precise language used in negotiations will help determine whether each leader is able to successfully frame the outcome as a victory to supporters back home.”
Netanyahu and Abbas will meet again on Sept. 14 in Egypt, and plan on holding face-to-face talks every two weeks until a final solution is reached. Filling in for Obama will be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will mediate the talks.