Nation & World

Same issues, same faces, same hopes as Mideast peace talks resume

The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” may apply nowhere better than the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that are about to be reconvened after months of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The negotiators are nothing if not familiar with one another.

From chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, down to the various deputies and experts in the room, all of the players have been involved in previous peace efforts. Even Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel who Kerry named to be Washington’s special envoy to usher the talks along, has been here before – during the administration of Bill Clinton, when he was the White House Middle East adviser.

It will be, as one American official described, a “meeting of old acquaintances, albeit ones that don’t like or trust each other very much.”

“If there are any surprises, it won’t come from the players sitting around the table. We’ve all read each other’s scripts before, we’ve just never reached the final act,” said the American official, who has been involved in peace efforts since 2003. He spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity, because, he said. “We are all trying to keep big headlines out of the press before.”

“Unfortunately, we are all very familiar with this process,” the official said. “The optimists will tell you that having old hands back at the table gives us advantage to jump-start talks at where they last left off. The pessimists will tell you that all us old hands means no one will come with anything fresh to shake up a process that has been stalled nearly 20 years.”

Since 2003, when the “roadmap for peace” established that peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be negotiated on the basis of two sovereign states, little has been done to advance that vision. Israeli officials argue that Palestinians have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that hard-line Islamists continue to advocate publicly for terrorism against Israel.

Palestinians argue that Israel continues to build settlements on land earmarked for their future state in the West Bank, and that the current Israeli leadership refuses to recognize the 1967 armistice line as the basis on which an Israeli and a Palestinian state will be drawn.

Tuesday’s meeting in Washington will be the fourth effort since 2003 to restart talks, though few have made it beyond the talking-about-talking stage.

“Everyone knows what a final peace agreement will look like, we even have maps and previous working papers, and transcripts in which we can go 99 percent of the way toward establishing what a final peace treaty will look like,” said one senior Palestinian official, who is taking part in the current talks and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Nobody needs to reinvent the wheel. There is no need to stall.”

Yet in statements made this week, senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders spoke of a “long road ahead” and said that they have promised to give the newest peace effort at least nine months to reach a breakthrough.

“We have to begin at the beginning. We are not going in with preconditions or preconceptions, but with a fresh starting point,” said Yuval Steinitz, an Israeli Cabinet minister who is considered especially close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are not taking off where someone else left off, this is not how this is going to work.”

Steinitz said that while previous Israeli leaders, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, had “allegedly drawn maps and drafted agreements” during the 2007-2008 peace talks with the Palestinian leadership, none of those would be used during the new negotiations.

One senior Israeli official, also involved in the talks and therefore only willing to speak anonymously, said that Livni, a former foreign minister who’s in the current government as both justice minister and peace envoy, would have to be particularly careful during negotiations and had very little “wiggle room.”

“Everyone knows that she has a government behind her which doesn’t really stand behind her,” said the official, referring to Livni’s advocacy of the two-state solution in a Cabinet that does not really back it.

“Even if she came to a final type of agreement, there is no assurances she will get it passed back home,” the official said.

Israel’s Cabinet voted to approve a new law that would require a public referendum on any future peace deal affecting sovereign Israeli territory. Israeli newspaper columnist Shalom Yerushalmi remarked that if that law had been in place 30 years ago, Israel never would have been able to negotiate peace with any of its neighbors.

Palestinians admit that they, too, must contend with a deeply divided public, many of whom back the position of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip, which opposes any negotiations.

“We all agree that neither side is enthusiastic about peace talks at this stage,” said one Palestinian official previously involved in negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Though when we go to Washington all of us will pretend to be and will talk about ‘optimism’ and ‘prospects for peace.’”