Following concerted U.S. pressure and a message of support from the Arab League, Israel and Palestine have started indirect peace talks. Hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough, however, are low. In a new video Q&A, Nathan Brown discusses the indirect talks, analyzes U.S. policy in the Middle East, and assesses the situation in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. 

Brown says that “if there is going to be a lasting agreement, there will have to be direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians at some point—the Obama administration will use the period of indirect talks to figure out how to move to direct talks.” While the issues are well known on all sides, the question is whether there is a long term plan to move the peace process forward.  

What is the status of the peace process?

There are two ways to look at where the peace process is at right now. One is on the diplomatic, high politics level. Essentially, the United States is talking to the parties separately about talking to the parties separately. So that sounds fairly basic. 

The other level to look at where the peace process is at the moment is at the level of the two publics—the Israeli and Palestinian publics. This is a little more distressing. It’s not just that we are at a basic point (like we are with the level of high diplomacy), it is that we are at a pretty depressing point. Both sides have essentially checked out—the publics have checked out of the peace process, expecting very little from it. So the problem there is a very deep cynicism and mistrust that is taking hold in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. 

How does Washington view the peace process?

The Obama administration came in a little bit differently than most of its predecessors. Usually, when there have been breakthroughs in the peace process, it’s been the parties themselves that have pushed it and then the United States got into it. The Bush and Clinton administrations did not come in to office to make Israeli-Palestinian peace. When they pursued diplomacy, it was because the parties themselves had pushed the process.

Now we are in a different kind of moment. The Obama administration came in when neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership seemed to have a diplomatic process going, but the new administration decided it is a priority for the United States. And that’s a bit different. 

Will indirect talks lead to a breakthrough?

If the United States wants indirect talks, then there will probably be indirect talks. The Israeli government has for a long time guarded its close security relationship with the United States and doesn’t want to do anything to alienate the United States. And indirect talks won’t cost very much so they will cooperate. 

The Palestinian leadership pays a slightly higher price because they have been cooperating with talks and the situation on the ground continues to get worse (the Palestinian public believes that they’ve been cooperating with talks for a couple decades). So, when Mahmoud Abbas participates in talks—even if they are indirect—he pays a political cost at home. But, he’s so dependent on the United States and on the West generally, fiscally, and, diplomatically that he will cooperate. 

The problem is once the indirect talks start, what they will probably do a good job of doing is sketching out what the issues are. But in the sense, we know what the issues are. Nobody expects them to lead to a breakthrough. The question becomes what happens when those talks sketch out an agenda and then find out—which is what everyone expects—that there will be no progress in implementing the agenda. What is the next step? 

The United States is not interested in indirect steps as an end in itself. Obviously, if there is going to be an agreement, there will have to be direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians at some point. I expect the Obama administration will use the period of indirect talks to figure out how to move to direct talks. 

How successful is U.S. policy in the region?

You have to admire President Obama for coming in and deciding that this was going to be one of his priorities, in a situation that did not look all that promising. But the simple fact is that he has been in office for over a year. On a mechanical level, we are talking about indirect talks, which is in a sense a step backwards. On a substantive level, the two sides are very very far apart. 

I don’t think you can regard the Obama administration efforts so far as successful in any respect. I think the best he can hope for at this point is an incomplete, and with an incomplete you to need to have a plan with how you are going to complete the work—that is what’s missing. 

Should the United States unveil a comprehensive Middle East peace plan?

The idea of the United States putting forward its idea for the parameters of a just and fair settlement is a good idea—it’s a good idea for about 15 years ago. It may simply be too late, or it may simply be that this may not be the time where it will do much good. 

The problem is that if the United States spells out those conditions, it will probably be a set of principles that the current Israeli government couldn’t accept. It would lead to a problem with the Israeli government. 

At the same time, the Palestinians are much more interested in pulling in the United States. They are the weaker party, so they would love to not face the Israelis alone and would love to have other parties involved. They would love it to be the United Nations with UN Security Council resolutions—they can’t get that—and they would love it to be the Europeans, but the Israelis wouldn’t put up with that. So they need to get the United States involved. <

If the United States spelled out its ideas of what a final settlement would look like, it would probably disappoint the Palestinians quite substantially in the issue of refugee rights. So again, even on the Palestinian side, it’s not clear that it would be greeted warmly. 

The real problem is what do you do with this plan when both sides say they reject it, or say, “yes but” (which in an effort to please the United States they might say). How do you bring this plan into action when the Israeli leadership is really not committed to the two-state solution as the international community understands it and with a Palestinian leadership that is weak? It’s not clear what the United States can do to realize the plan. 

President Obama reportedly invited President Abbas to Washington in May. What is the significance of the visit and does Abbas have the political strength to negotiate with Israel?

An Abbas visit to the United States would probably be a nice way of easing the Palestinians into talks, as they expect so little from them. When he came into office, Abbas is the first leader Obama called and the Obama administration’s plans seem to hinge on two individual Palestinian leaders—Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Salam Fayyad, the president of the half of the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank (or at least portions of the West Bank). Obama is very invested in those two particular leaders. 

The two leaders have very little to show for their friendship with the United States. They can keep paying Palestinians’ salaries because of international financial help, but they really have nothing to show diplomatically. This is probably a nice award. There will be people measuring exactly how Abbas gets treated versus how Netanyahu got treated, whether he will be invited for dinner and this sort of thing. 

It may be an important symbolic way of communicating a close American friendship with the Palestinian leadership. 

What are the economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza?

The dirty truth that most Palestinians do not want to acknowledge is that much of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza relies on one thing and one thing only—access to the outside world, which Israel essentially controls. So, the better movement and access is through the West Bank, the better access is through Israel, the better access is to the Israeli markets, and the fewer barriers are in place, the healthier the Palestinian economy becomes. 

Because of the security improvements in the West Bank and because of very heavy American pressure on the Israeli government, there has been some lessening of the tight Israeli grip on the West Bank. And that has made some economic recovery possible, but I wouldn’t call it economic development. You are basically seeing a return to the economic situation before the intifada and Israel’s tight clamp down of security controls. 

Gaza is a different story. Gaza has an economy that is basically completely cut off from Israel. Some humanitarian trucks go in every day, but that’s about it. They have a big difficulty exporting and they have a big difficulty importing—they can do it above ground in a limited way, or they can smuggle through underground tunnels. But again, the problem with the Gaza economy is that movement and access in and out is a real difficulty. 

Hamas doesn’t mind that so much as long as it can keep people fed and keep the government afloat. It actually disentangles Gaza from the Israeli economy and moves it more toward Egypt. For Hamas, they are being good Palestinians, good Arabs, and good Muslims—that’s a better direction for them, but it is one that has a significant economic cost for Gaza in the short term. 

Are there any signs of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah? Should the United States continue to isolate Hamas and Gaza?

The problem of what to do with Gaza and Hamas is a fundamental one for any approach. Essentially, the Obama administration’s approach has been to say, “Let’s deal with that later. Let’s get a diplomatic approach going with the Ramallah government and continue to isolate Hamas by bottling it up in Gaza. When we get a process going and the Palestinian Authority gets its feet on the ground then, we can turn to the Gaza problem.” 

The only problem with that approach is that it is not clear that it’s going to be any easier to deal with Gaza further down the line and it encourages feelings on both sides that essentially drive the other part. Neither the Ramallah government nor the Gaza government headed by Hamas are in any hurry to pursue reconciliation as they don’t see favorable terms. 

That’s one problem with it—it kicks the problem down the road and it’s not clear the problem is going to get any easier. There is also tremendous humanitarian cost to the economy in Gaza. It’s absolutely disastrous and kept alive essentially with international assistance and some smuggling. 

The Obama administration’s approach has been is to talk very quietly with the Israelis—not to end the blockade on Gaza, but to perhaps ease it a bit on commodities that don’t seem to have much to do with security. What that does is it keeps the population of Gaza alive, but it doesn’t lead to any sort of economic development. 

Everybody on the Palestinian side expects that at some point there will be some sort of unification of the territories. They are very far apart politically, now separated geographically, in some ways they are separate socially as well—the West Bank and Gaza are evolving in separate social directions. But the idea of national unity is so strong that people expect both sides to come together. It’s just a question of when and right now neither leadership seems willing to make any sacrifices because they are basically content where they are for the short term. 

The biggest thing that could be a possible monkey wrench to the status quo would be a prisoner release deal between Israel and Hamas. Hamas holds an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and the Israelis hold thousands of Hamas prisoners. If there were a prisoner release it could change all sorts of things. 

It might be coupled with some relaxation of controls over Gaza and it might mean that Hamas members of parliament who have been held in Israeli prison for four years would be able to meet. Hamas would have a parliamentary majority and that would alter the domestic Palestinian balance between Hamas and Fatah. It would also mean that Hamas would have something to show for its strategy—Fatah was always frustrated in its ability to get its prisoners released and Hamas could say we held the line, we bargained a much tougher deal than you were able to get, and so on and so forth. 

Part of the deal could lead to the release of Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader who is in Israeli prison right now. It could completely reshuffle the deck in terms of domestic Palestinian politics in ways neither side quite understands. 

How can Palestinian institutions be improved? 

In terms of Palestinian institutions, there have been a whole series of attempts by Palestinians to say we can still build our own institutions and have them govern our own lives regardless of what is going on with Israel, with the occupation, and with the conflict. In essence that is what the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) is about, but it soon got caught up in international diplomacy and spent more time on diplomacy than building anything in the West Bank and Gaza. 

After the Oslo Accords, there was a group that went in to try to build up the PLO. The problem there was Yasser Arafat who didn’t want to develop any kind of institutions that would limit his own authority. So once again you had an effort that failed and the international community for the most part backed Arafat thinking it was better to have a strong Palestinian leader than one is who is tied down by people who may not let him make the necessary concessions.

You can also say Hamas represents an attempt. What Hamas says is that there is not going to be any peace with Israel, we’ve got to take things into our own hands. So they are building up their own institutions in Gaza in a way that has actually been impressive, even though they are not building them in the kind of way the international community would like to see. 

And finally there is Salam Fayyad, who is essentially taking a reform program from the 1990s (this was when people tried to build up the Palestinian Authority when Arafat was alive and became frustrated by him) and saying now is the time to go ahead. We can build ministries, we can build courts, we can build a health system, school system, and we can have them operate efficiently and professionally. 

There are two problems with the approach. In some ways it is very admirable and it’s the sort of thing Palestinians should always have been doing, but there are two problems with it. First, it is essentially undemocratic. All the democratic mechanisms—including elections—have been robbed. Essentially this is something that appears to be happening from above.  It may be profession and it may be efficient, but it doesn’t stem from the society, so it can be a little bit alienating politically in that way. 

The second problem is that there is a dead end in terms of the peace process. Palestinians may be able to pave streets more effectively in Ramallah, they may be able to collect garbage, they may be able to have better health regulation, but when it comes to movement between cities, when it comes to building in locations outside of complete Palestinian control, when it comes to economic measures, and the list continues, they run right up against the fact that the West Bank is still essentially occupied territory. 

There are limits in terms of what he can do and Fayyad says we will cross that bridge when we come to it. We can build the institutions and if they earn up enough international respect we can get the diplomatic support necessary to expand their focus. That’s where Obama may be put to the test because he has backed this effort and the time may come fairly soon where Fayyad will—at least according to the story he’s told his own people—turn to the international community and say that I’ve done exactly what I was supposed to do, now is the time I need your support to make sure this can be the kernel of a Palestinian state.

Why haven’t there been new elections in Palestine?

There were Palestinian elections in 1996 for the president and the parliament, but this was for a temporary structure and nobody really thought about when a second set of elections would be needed. This was only supposed to be in place for a few years, but it dragged on and on and on. Finally in 2005, they passed a law mandating new elections. Abbas was elected president after the death of Yasser Arafat, but his term is now up. And in 2006, parliament was elected bringing a Hamas victory. 

Why haven’t there been new elections? Well essentially Hamas and Fatah cannot agree—they cannot agree on what the rules are, they cannot agree on what the law is, and there are no real mechanisms to implement elections. In essence, elections can’t get out of the political impasse between Hamas and Fatah. 

Only when the two sides sit down and agree will there be elections and neither side is enthusiastic about going into elections right now. Fatah is not a political party that has ever been particularly skilled at elections. Hamas was more skilled last time, but its popularity has taken a big hit because of the economic situation in Gaza and Hamas is not anxious to face the voters anytime soon. 

How does Israel view the peace process and how strong are U.S.-Israeli relations?

The American-Israeli relationship right now has Israelis very nervous. Both the political elite and the broader society feel that a close relationship with the United States is absolutely essential for long term Israeli-security. That has gotten them through some tough times. 

Right now, Israel is probably more worried about the rise of the Iran than the Palestinians. Again, the United States is a key actor in that situation and they don’t want to be on the wrong side with the United States. 

The Obama administration, by placing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so high on its agenda has put the Israeli government in tough position. It has a right-wing Israeli government that is simply not interested in moving toward what the international community sees as a two-state solution. Israel’s government can talk about a two-state solution, but they basically rob it of all of its meaning. Not only are they not convinced that they want it, they are also convinced it can’t happen. The Palestinian leadership is too weak, the necessary guarantees they’d have to give wouldn’t be trusted, and so forth and so on. But the United States just keeps pushing on this. 

So what are they supposed to do? The approach of the Netanyahu government has essentially been to try and be very polite to the United States. When Netanyahu was prime minister earlier, he clashed with Bill Clinton and it ultimately helped bring his government down because he couldn’t manage his relationship with the United States. He’s not interested in doing that again and he’s not interested in turning to the Israeli public and saying the policies of my government have led to a crisis with Israel’s closest partner.  

On the surface, everything is extremely polite. But there is real nervousness in Israel about the Obama administration and its policies. And the Obama administration seems to be trying to address this and trying to use softer language with Israel, but even when it tries to do so—for instance, when Vice President Biden went there recently—it finds some sort of political obstacle in its path.