The Difficulty of Reading the Peace Talk Tea Leaves

The recent White House Middle East meeting illustrates the difficulty of applying strategic and effective action towards a peace agreement when the two parties have conflicting agendas. They cannot disentangle their own vital interest from the political pressures and dysfunctional internal context of their own countries.

While Netanyahu and Abbas are to meet again in two weeks to pursue “peace talks”, actions by either the Israeli government or the Palestinians could easily undo the whole initiative. The most pressing problem is the continued building of settlements on the West Bank, compounded by further building in East Jerusalem.

Abas re-iterated his threat to pull out of the peace talks if Israel resumes construction.  Yet an agreement among Israelis to give-up existing and future settlements has not materialized.

America seems unable and un-willing to press the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. Increasingly, our own global strategy and national security requires positive steps towards a more peaceful Middle East.  As many experts on the region have stated, the outlines of an agreement are clear but neither leader is willing to trade immediate political gain for their people’s long-term security.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to meet again in Egypt on Sept 14 -15. They will continue to meet at regular two-week intervals to continue the peace talks. While some characterize the talks as “productive” there are doubts if it will produce tangible success.

It is in this precarious context that the peace talks can deteriorate; a false move by either side will easily disrupt the talks. Both leaders wisely condemned the recent terrorist attacks by Hamas however the settlement issue continues to exacerbate tensions. The difficulty lies in reading the peace talk tea leaves given the internal complexity of both actors and the volatility of the region.

U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell told reporters last week that “They agreed that for these negotiations to succeed, [the talks] must be kept private and treated with sensitivity.”  In particular, the next meetings will test the skills of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, given that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas are fully committed to the peace process.

The problem illustrates how an unresolved dispute can create an increasingly dangerous situation for the rest of the region and world. Other nations, beyond Israel and Palestine, have a stake in resolving this protracted conflict. Let us hope that these two actors do not turn this event from a drama into a tragedy.

By Harry C. Blaney III, Senior Fellow, Center for International Policy

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