Are Israelis and Palestinians heading back to the bargaining table? That might be the upshot of President Obama's meeting in Washington with Prime Minister "Bibi" Netanyahu. If so, the two sides will be seated at different tables this time, in different cities, for what the parties are calling "proximity talks." Proposed by the United States as a way of getting around Palestinian objections to face-to-face negotiations, the talks will be begin next month, with American mediators shuttling back and forth between the two sides. The good news is that the Middle East peace process is finally recommencing, after a 14-month impasse. The bad news: these talks are probably doomed from the start. Here's why.
1. Proximity talks have never worked. Israel and Syria tried them during 2008, with the Turks acting as message carriers (Turkish officials are now offering to do so again). The two delegations actually stayed in the same hotel in Istanbul during four sessions but never interacted in person. The result was a series of interesting exchanges but no concrete decisions, not even the obligatory confidence-building measures. Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have also engaged in indirect talks, but not since the early 1990s, when the two sides had no formal relations; they never went anywhere. Former Israeli pol Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo peace process and the man most identified with Middle East negotiations, says moving away from direct engagement is a huge regression. "We were married and now you're asking the matchmaker to introduce us?," Beilin told NEWSWEEK recently. "Who is the idiot who suggested it?" (Apparently, it was U.S. envoy George Mitchell.)
2. Israeli leaders don't really want an agreement—at least not one involving the deep compromises Palestinians are expecting. Yes, Netanyahu apologized for the timing of the announcement earlier this month—just as Vice President Biden began his visit to Israel—that 1,600 new homes would be built in East Jerusalem. And yes, the White House rewarded him by scheduling a meeting with President Obama. But Netanyahu remains a hardliner whose coalition partners include the most hawkish figures in Israeli politics. Appeasing them requires the kind of statements Netanyahu made just before a flight to Washington this week: "As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv," he told his cabinet, according to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "Israel's position is very clear, and it will also be clear during my visit to the U.S. capital." What does Netanyahu want? A drawn-out negotiation that will keep the Americans off his back and Palestinians off the streets but won't actually test his coalition; in short, more process than peace.
3. Palestinian leaders don't believe a deal is possible—at least not the deal they want. President Mahmoud Abbas negotiated for more than two years with Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who at one point showed him a map of a proposed Palestinian state on 96 percent of the West Bank (plus 4 percent in land swaps). Palestinians say the offer was never officially tendered and became moot once police indicted Olmert for graft. But the proposal, well beyond what Netanyahu would presumably offer, now stands as the baseline for Palestinian expectations—anything less will be scoffed at. Far from pinning his hopes on the negotiations, Abbas is hoping that once they break down, the Obama administration will offer its own plan and compel the Israelis to accept it. According to an Israeli official involved in the process who did not want to be named discussing behind-the-scenes contacts, Palestinians asked Washington to promise it would assign blame in that case, but they were rebuffed.
All these impediments don't necessarily mean American efforts are unwarranted. Whenever a resolution to the conflict seems out of reach—as it did during Netanyahu's last term in office, for example, in the late '90s—Washington resorts to conflict management, believing that a superficial process is better than no process at all. Still, peace gambits raise hopes among Israelis and Palestinians, and when the hopes turn to disappointment—see the collapse of the Camp David summit in 2000, for instance—violence sometimes ensues. Proximity talks are probably better than nothing, but without face-to-face meetings they don't offer real hope for a deal.