Analysts play down expectations from Obama-Abbas-Netanyahu talks 2009-09-02 03:23:26   Print

    by David Harris

    JERUSALEM, Sept. 1 (Xinhua) -- There are increasing signs that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will meet Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu later this month, with United States President Barack Obama chairing the session. However Israeli analysts are playing down the chances of an early breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

    Israeli President Shimon Peres gave further credence to media reports about the impending meeting when he was interviewed by FoxNews on Monday. He said there is "a chance" negotiations would resume following the meeting.

    In order to get to that stage, the Americans are continuing to pressure Israel to agree to a full cessation of all construction work in its settlements on the West Bank. Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said, that must not be allowed to include any Israeli "loopholes," according to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.

    The Americans and Israelis have been talking up the chances of an agreement between them to a settlement freeze as early as the middle of this month, when international leaders gather in New York for the opening of the 64th General Assembly of the United Nations.

    Assuming agreement is reached and the Palestinians are satisfied with the arrangements, what can the parties expect to gain from a tripartite meeting?

    Firstly, the meeting could well act as an icebreaker, because it will be the first summit of the leaders since Obama and Netanyahu came into office at the start of 2009. The session will also come hot on the heels of last month's Fatah Congress. It was the first time that Abbas' party, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, has held such a high-powered gathering in 20 years. Elections to the party's highest institutions have brought with them a group of new, younger faces.

    Alon Liel was a part of the Israeli team that was behind the 1993 Oslo Accords which established the Palestinian Authority. He rose to be the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs before becoming a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv.

    Like other experts, he remains skeptical that the meeting will "achieve anything at all, if it goes ahead" which he also questions.

    "The type of things that will come up in the meeting will be technical, perhaps connected to roadblocks, to aid - what we can call the bottom up," Liel said on Tuesday.

    The political realities, "the top down" are highly unlikely to be up for discussion, according to Liel, who is seen as an Israeli dove.

    He is of the opinion that as long as Abbas has no control over the Gaza Strip, he brings little to the table, and that includes alack of support from much of the Palestinian population. The Israelis are well aware of that, and therefore question his ability to deliver.

    The Palestinian areas that would most likely comprise a state at the conclusion of negotiations include the West Bank, where Fatah rules, and Gaza, which is controlled by Fatah's bitter rival, Hamas.

    The Islamic Hamas movement won pan-Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 from its Gaza stronghold. A year later, it fought a bloody battle against Fatah on the streets of Gaza, ousting Fatah from the coastal enclave. Abbas and his West Bank colleagues refer to it as "a bloody coup."

    "At this time, the Palestinians are too divided, and their leaders are too weak to make this historic compromise that is necessary for a stable two-state solution," said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

    Both analysts see little chance of early resolution because of internal political issues and those between Israelis and Palestinians.

    Netanyahu also has his own worries in the backyard. While Netanyahu may want to push the process forwards, as Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, points out, his hands are tied by domestic political considerations. He heads a hawkish government, which will not accept the type of agreement that the Palestinians and Americans want to see put in place.

    Steinberg argues that part of the problem is that the central issues have been in existence for around 60 years, since Israel's creation, and that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its settlement activities are merely "symptoms." Tackling the symptoms will not resolve the underlying problems, he says.

    "After so many failed peace efforts, Israelis, and not only Netanyahu, want the assurance of a permanent peace through the recognition of the right of the Jewish nation to self-determination. This has always been the main source of the conflict," he said.

    This was one of the main themes of Netanyahu's policy speech on June 14, which was a response to Obama's Cairo address to the Muslim world 10 days earlier.

    The Palestinians rejected the idea that they should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. They also questioned Netanyahu's other main demand "that any future Palestinians state be fully demilitarized."

    Palestinians argue that Israel needs to show it is ready to live side by side with the Palestinians in gestures and not just in words. They want to see an end to closures, the lifting of roadblocks and the release of Palestinians prisoners from Israeli jails in addition to a settlement freeze.

    In other words, both sides expect a lot from one another.

    Pushing the peace process towards its conclusion too quickly will result in a major failure, Steinberg warns.

    However, political realities leave Obama at least feeling he must deliver, and sooner rather than later.

    One of the key problems facing both Obama and Netanyahu is that in the U.S. and Israel politicians come and politicians go. The nature of the American political systems means Obama will be seeking reelection in 2012, while the shaky electoral structure in Israel could see Netanyahu out of office at any point over the next four years.

    Netanyahu may not want to reach a final-status agreement as prime minister and has been accused by political rivals of foot-dragging on the Palestinian issue. On the other hand, Obama has made it clear that he wants to see an early conclusion to the decades-old conflict.

    Asked if any serious progress will be made before the end of Obama's first term, Liel replied somewhat whimsically. "If before then Mahmoud Abbas manages to visit Gaza, and come out in one piece, then the answer is 'yes'," he said.

Editor: Mu Xuequan
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