George Mitchell may not get to spend much vacation time in Maine this summer.
Mitchell, President Obama’s Middle East envoy, is likely to be spending much of the summer in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Cairo and possibly Damascus in what shapes up as the most promising chance of progress in the beleaguered peace process in a long time.
No doubt by coincidence, summer months tend to be more productive in Middle East peacemaking. The most successful negotiations, the Camp David Accords that led to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, were held in August and September, 1978. The promising, but ultimately deflating Camp David summit of 2000 was held in July.
Recent improvement in the conditions for negotiations follows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House last week, and comes after Israel’s clumsy attack on the humanitarian flotilla against the blockade of Gaza.
Several Middle East experts believe the intense international reaction against Israel has led to a shift in the public mood in Israel, namely worry about increasing isolation — and, subsequently, put pressure on Netanyahu to look more energetically for steps toward peace talks.
Steps toward peace talks do not translate into peace, let alone progress toward resolution of the complex differences between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which now rules only the West Bank. But observers with deep experience in the region see promise where they saw only gloom weeks ago.
These experts credit President Obama with improving U.S.-Israeli relations by careful management of the fallout from the flotilla aftermath. Certainly, the U.S. effort to ease U.N. condemnation of Israel, combined with passage of tougher sanctions against Iran’s nuclear weapons drive, led to a warmer Obama-Netanyahu meeting last week.
Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel, wrote in The Washington Post recently: “These factors combine to create the most conducive environment for peace negotiations since the outbreak of the second [Palestinian] intifada in 2000.”
Of course, there are other key players — mainly the Palestinians, now divided between moderates and the Iranian-backed extremist organization Hamas. The moderate West Bank leader, Mahmoud Abbas, still demands a total ban on Israeli settlements before he will agree to direct talks.
Netanyahu’s temporary moratorium expires in September. If a total settlement freeze could be announced, observers see a real possibility of direct talks soon that could lead to progress on border arrangements, one of the four “endgame” issues. Agreement on the shape of the West Bank, one insider believes, could allow Netanyahu and Abbas some flexibility in managing their fractious domestic bases.
Some experts attribute Netanyahu’s shift to growing criticism of Israel in the United States — from respected figures who have not questioned Israel sharply in the past.
Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, but then head of U.S. command for the entire Middle East, commented last winter that U.S. efforts to bring stability in Afghanistan and Iraq are impeded by failure in the Middle East peace process. “The status quo is unsustainable,” Petraeus said later. “If you don’t achieve progress in a just and lasting Mideast peace, the extremists are given a stick to beat us with.”
Others have been blunter. Anthony Cordesman, a respected military strategist, wrote just before Netanyahu’s visit to Washington that recent Israeli governments have ignored the national security interests of the U.S.
President Obama correctly focused attention early in his term on the settlements — expanded steadily by various Israeli governments in defiance of American presidents, international obligations and in many cases after outright theft of Palestinian lands.
Many Mideast experts are skeptical about progress. Aaron David Miller, a senior adviser to six secretaries of State, sees “a false calm.” Recanting even his own belief in the value of forceful diplomacy, Miller now sees the U.S. as too over-stretched in the region and, due to the strategic fumbling of George W. Bush “neither feared, nor admired nor respected” as it once was.
Miller feels that to make progress at all, Obama must be both tough and reassuring. And perhaps it takes a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations to push Israel to take “risks for peace,” as many of its own citizens urge.
Despite the deep divisions on the Palestinian side among Arab regimes in Israel, the U.S. remains the only power with the credibility to serve as a balanced, honest broker. It may resemble the Greek myth of Sisyphus, and we may be condemned to pushing the boulder up the mountain only to have it fall back down. But pressing for dialogue, incremental improvement in economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and perhaps bolder leaders is the only sensible course.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic served as a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and later worked on national