An unprecedented war of words following Israel’s announcement of a new settlement in East Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s trip to the Middle East threatens any hope of a successful outcome to the indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. 

In a video Q&A, Michele Dunne analyzes the Obama administration’s approach to the peace process and the repercussions of the settlement row. Dunne says that despite the disagreement, bilateral relations are actually strong and enduring. But, “the Obama administration’s policy relating to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict is in crisis at this point,” she warns. “The administration is going to have to make some difficult decisions, and quickly.”


What is the status of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians?

Following Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the proximity talks that were about to be launched are now on hold. The Palestinians have declined to join the talks—at least for the present—because of Israel’s gesture of giving approval for a large new neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The Arab League, which had given its blessing to the Palestinian Authority to go ahead with the talks, has now withdrawn that agreement. 

We are now at a stage where the Palestinians are not ready, even for indirect talks with Israel. The talks were just going to be shuttle diplomacy; they were not even going to meet directly. 

How effectively has President Obama promoted peace in the Middle East? Has U.S. policy been successful?

During President Obama’s first year in office, the administration’s policy toward the Middle East, specifically toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, was widely acknowledged as problematic, and not a success at all. Initially, the Obama administration put pressure on Israel to freeze Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This very important issue of the settlements has caused the Palestinians to doubt Israel’s willingness to negotiate over the future of the West Bank. 

The problem is that the Obama administration took a tough stance with Israel, and then backed down. When the Israelis showed they were unwilling to bring about a settlements freeze, the Obama administration accepted something far less, a so-called moratorium on settlements. This really just keeps construction at a normal level in the West Bank. Because of that the Palestinians have refused direct talks with Israel. 

We’ve gotten into a situation where the best the Obama administration can do is to arrange proximity talks, in effect “shuttle diplomacy,” where the special envoy, Senator George Mitchell, will go back and forth between the parties. This is setting the diplomatic clock back almost twenty years. Since 1991, the Israelis and Palestinians have been talking to each other directly. Proximity talks represent a setback, not progress. And now we have this latest crisis involving settlements in East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians are not willing to have even proximity talks. 

So, I would say that the Obama administration’s policy relating to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict is in crisis at this point. The first round of diplomacy was a failure. Now we’re in the second round and facing the prospect of failure as well. The Obama administration is going to have to make some difficult decisions, and quickly. 

It is going to have to make a decision about how far to take the confrontation with Israel after Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel and the dust up over the announcement of a new Israeli neighborhood being built in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration has once again shown strong irritation with the Israeli government and is now saying that the Israeli government needs to reverse an administrative or bureaucratic decision to go ahead with this construction in East Jerusalem. That’s setting a very difficult condition for this Israeli government—or frankly any Israeli government—to meet. 

One wonders where it will go from here. It’s unlikely that the Israeli government will meet this condition. So, we’re either going to see a deterioration in relations, a coolness between the United States and Israel that might go on for some time, or we’re going to see the Obama administration back down once again, as it did last year. I think the latter would be quite damaging in terms of the administration’s reputation in the Middle East and even worldwide. 

Is there hope that the indirect talks will lead to a breakthrough? 

Should the Israelis make some gestures and the Palestinians decide to go ahead and participate in indirect talks, hopes are modest for any success. I suppose it is better to have indirect talks than no talks at all, but the situation is that we have, on one side, an Israeli government in which there are very few parties inside this government that are even interested in serious talks with the Palestinians or would be willing to take any steps or make any gestures in order to help those talks succeed. 

On the Palestinian side, we have an extremely weak Palestinian leadership. President Abbas is long past the end of his electoral term. There is a crisis between his group, the secular nationalists Fatah, and the Islamist Hamas group. There is a break between the West Bank ruled by Fatah and Gaza ruled by Hamas. 

President Abbas is extremely weak. He has a very small mandate. Even to move forward with shuttle diplomacy he had to get permission not only from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but also from the Arab League. This really should have been something that he decided to do himself and, at another time, this might have been possible. 

So what we have is a lack of interest on the Israeli side and a lack of strength or ability to go forward on the Palestinian side. That’s not very promising in terms of where these talks are going. 

How strong are U.S.–Israeli relations? 

U.S.–Israeli relations are strong and enduring. I don’t expect this crisis brought about by Vice President Biden’s visit and the Israeli announcement of a new settlement neighborhood to bring about a permanent rift. 

There has been a coolness between the Obama administration and Israel from the beginning. Israelis feel that President Obama has not shown enough consideration for their concerns. He has not visited Israel. He has not spoken directly to the Israeli people and tried to persuade them to freeze settlements and move forward in talks with Palestinians. They feel that he has exerted a lot of effort toward the Muslim world and toward the Palestinians, but not much toward them. 

At the same time President Obama has not shown them much resolve up until now. Last year, he took a firm stand on settlements and then backed down. Unfortunately, at this point, the Israelis look at the current U.S. administration without a great deal of trust or respect. 

On the U.S. side, we saw in the aftermath of the Biden visit the irritation that the Obama administration feels toward the current government of Israel and the frustration, the desire to move a diplomatic process forward. But the Israeli government is not particularly interested in that and is not willing to make gestures, and is even willing to take steps that strongly irritate and upset the other side, such as this settlement announcement. 

What we have is a temporary coolness in U.S.–Israeli relations. It’s hard to say at this point where this is going. It’s possible that the Obama administration will decide that under current circumstances it’s really not possible to go forward with the peace process and therefore they will just disengage. We already saw some of this earlier this year when President Obama spoke about the difficulties of initiating negotiations and began to disassociate himself. We saw a lowering of the profile of this issue, as something that Senator Mitchell would mostly handle. So that’s a possibility. 

It’s a possibility that the Obama administration really will try to put the pressure on Israel and show that in order to have a strong relationship with the United States, Israel must takes steps toward peace. That could possibly set off a crisis inside of Israel. One already sees this going on a bit in the Israeli press this week with people debating back and forth. “Netanyahu has mismanaged the relationship with the United States and he should not have been so provocative. He should be more accommodating.” And then others saying, “Absolutely not, we don't need to make any concessions. We need to show the Americans where we stand and just stand firm.” 

There’s the possibility that if the Obama administration were to be very tough with Israel that eventually this will have political repercussions inside Israel—repercussions for the stability of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition and so forth. That is a possibility as well. 

The third possibility is that the Obama administration will decide to patch things up and try to move forward with talks. It’s going to be difficult to do that with the Palestinians having such a weak hand. Frankly, the only thing they have is the ability to say no. 

Are there any signs of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas? Does Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have the strength to negotiate an agreement with Israel?

In addition to an Israeli government that’s not particularly interested in negotiating with the Palestinians, we have extreme political weakness on the Palestinian side. President Mahmoud Abbas is in office as president, but he’s far beyond his electoral mandate (it ran out more than a year ago). He doesn’t have a functioning Palestinian parliament, and all of this is because of the rift between the secularists and the Islamists in Palestine—Fatah, President Abbas’ group, the secular nationalist group that heads the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that now controls Gaza. 

This rift has so many negative repercussions, one being that President Abbas controls very little. He controls really only parts of the West Bank, he controls nothing in Gaza, and the Israelis are still in control of much of the West Bank. He does not have the ability to legislate and make laws, because the Palestinian parliament cannot meet due to the rift between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas has a majority in the Palestinian parliament, and President Abbas has shown that he’s really at the point where he can’t make any difficult decisions. 

Even to go ahead with the proximity talks President Abbas had to get permission from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, his own group, and from the Arab League, which issued a resolution. It was a limited mandate to go ahead with proximity talks until about July of this year. He didn’t even have an open-ended mandate. 

At that point the Israelis made their announcement about the settlement neighborhood in East Jerusalem, spoiling Vice President Biden’s visit. Both the Palestinians and the Arab League withdrew consent, and said that they are not going to participate until something has changed—for example, until the Israelis have reversed their approval for the neighborhood in East Jerusalem. That’s setting a very difficult condition that is unlikely to be met, so I think we may be in for a prolonged stalemate. 

In the longer run, some sort of modus vivendi, if not full reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, is essential. It’s essential to bring the West Bank and Gaza back together, to restore some kind of unity to Palestinian decision-making, to restore the ability to run the Palestinian Authority normally, to legislate, and to issue laws. 

Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad has an ambitious plan for building the institutions of a Palestinian state, and he’s received support—moral and financial—from the United States, European Union, and other donors. It’s a good plan, but it’s unrealistic to expect state building to go far when it’s impossible to legislate and make laws, which will not be possible until the Palestinian parliament can meet again. 

The Palestinians are going to need to hold new elections and elect new leadership, a new parliament, and most likely a new president, as President Abbas says he does not want to continue much longer in office.

Who are the critical players—both inside and outside the region—in the peace talks?

The critical players at this junction are the Palestinians and the Israelis. On the Palestinian side you have two critical players, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization is the formal negotiating party with the Israelis. And you have the Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. 

But I would say the ball rests with the United States right now. It’s the United States that has been pushing for the proximity talks and bolstering the Palestinian position that talks should not go forward until Israel has made some gestures—suspended its approval for this new construction in East Jerusalem, and perhaps made some kind of formal statement that Jerusalem is on the table for negotiations. That’s exactly what this Israeli gesture of announcing the new neighborhood in Jerusalem said—it’s not on the table, Jerusalem is ours and we’ll do what we like with it. 

The other critical players are Syria, which backs Hamas, and plays an important role in determining whether or not there will be Palestinian reconciliation. Egypt has been trying to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, and it can play a useful role in that regard. It’s much more on the Fatah–PLO side than it is on the Hamas side, but they can play an effective mediating role if the circumstances permit. Iran plays a role because of its support for Hamas and its close relationship with Syria. 

Outside the region, the Quartet players are Russia, the United Nations, and European Union—they’ll all be meeting this week in Moscow. But they play more of a supporting role. The Obama administration has not used the Middle East Quartet as actively as the Bush administration did. 

The Quartet usually meets from time to time to give some sort of a blessing, or criticism, to the parties for what they are doing. It represents an international consensus so that the parties cannot run off to Russia or the European Union and try to get them to adopt a different position than the United States.