President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, on September 22 in New York. Nathan Brown explains the importance of the meeting and analyzes the opportunities for restarting Middle East peace talks.
Brown believes that the trilateral meeting was not overly significant and he doesn’t see “any viable opportunities at the moment to push for a two-state solution.” While the Israeli government wants to maintain good relations with the United States, it “doesn’t necessarily believe in the possibility of a two-state solution.”
On the Palestinian side, Hamas and Fatah are far apart on the most important issues and the price of encouraging reconciliation is too high right now. “It would mean dealing directly or indirectly with Hamas and it would probably mean putting the diplomatic process on hold for now. The Obama administration is dedicated to a two-state solution and to bring Hamas into the equation makes that more, rather than less, difficult.”
This was the first time since Netanyahu took office that he and Abbas have met. Was the meeting significant?
The meeting was not as significant as it could have been. President Obama is trying to get peace talks between Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu started again. That has not happened except for this meeting itself, and there is no clear follow-up. The meeting was short and there were no particular results—it doesn’t seem to have accomplished what the Obama administration was looking for.
The Obama administration has made the peace process an early priority. Are we seeing any progress? What signs should we look for and when?
We are not seeing any progress in the peace process. From the start, the Obama administration sketched out a coherent approach to the peace process that includes two things. First, it viewed it as hard to have a viable peace process when Israeli settlements are still being constructed in the West Bank. Settlement expansion indicates that the Israelis are not moving towards a solution. So, from the beginning, the Obama administration was willing to go toe-to-toe with the Israeli government on the issue of settlements.
The second part of the approach was designed to convince the Israelis that there was the possibility of a peaceful settlement. In order to convince them, the Obama administration turned less to the Palestinians and more to other Arab states. The new team tried to pursue this as part of an integrated regional policy where the Arab states that are interested in seeing their problems solved will give concrete concessions to the Israelis. This includes oil pipelines, opening interest sections, fly over rights, and so on.
That was the basic approach, but neither of these things have happened. The Obama administration had what looked like a confrontation with Israel on settlements and later backed off. It pressed Arab governments really hard, but didn’t have anything to show for it. And that’s the reason for the disappointment today.
I would also say, however, that what the Obama administration doesn’t necessarily seem to have thought through is what happens if it does accomplish these steps. You still have a rightist Israeli government that isn’t interested in the shape of a two-state solution that the Obama administration wishes to pursue. And you have a new Palestinian leadership that is extremely weak. So, even if Obama had received the concessions he wants—from the Arab side and from the Israelis—it’s not clear how the process would move forward after that.
Are there any opportunities for movement in negotiations from either the Palestinians or Israelis?
I don’t see any tremendous opportunities right now. The Israeli government is interested in having good relations with the United States. A close relationship with the United States is a pillar of Israel’s security policy, so the government does not want to do anything to alienate the Americans. But the current Israeli government doesn’t necessarily believe in the possibility of a two-state solution. There is not a majority in the government that would support the concessions necessary to make it happen and make it all possible.
On the Palestinian side, as I said before, the leadership is weak. It controls the West Bank, it doesn’t control Gaza. For that reason, I don’t really see any viable opportunities at the moment to push for a two-state solution.
What role has the Arab world been taking in the latest negotiation efforts?
The best thing that the Arab world has done for the Obama administration is cheerleading. Arab countries haven’t really gotten too involved. There are a few Arab states that have made limited gestures, but it’s not what the Obama administration is looking for; it certainly hasn’t been enough to change public opinion in Israel.
What is the status of the reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah? How does this impact the ability of the peace process to move forward?
Right now the two sides are extremely far apart and they both think time is on their side. Mahmoud Abbas and his government in Ramallah are convinced that they have international support—including diplomatic support and financial backing—and don’t need Hamas. As a result, Hamas and Fatah are talking to each other less and less and when they do sit down to talk they find that they are far apart on most important issues.
If the international community, especially the Egyptians who are leading mediation efforts, and the Americans, wanted reconciliation to happen, it might work. Egypt and the United States could provide carrots and sticks to both sides. But the price of doing that right now is too high. It would mean dealing directly or indirectly with Hamas and it would probably mean putting the diplomatic process on hold for now. The Obama administration is dedicated to a two-state solution and to bring Hamas into the equation makes that more, rather than less, difficult.
About the Middle East Program
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.