Mort Zuckerman: U.S. Role in Israeli-Palestinian Talks Is a Problem

Having Americans in the direct negotiations is a serious problem in procedure.

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Seventeen years ago, the world was astonished to learn that the Israelis and Palestinians had concluded a far-reaching understanding to advance peace—the now-famous Oslo agreements. This negotiation has ever since served as a role model for how two hostile parties might settle. One essential feature of Oslo was that nobody knew about it. There were no American intermediaries, no television, no press conferences.

The talks in Washington have, by contrast, opened with fanfare. The crucial question is whether the two sides will now observe an Oslo silence, keeping the substance of their conversations to themselves. Leaks could become destructive, hence Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has indicated he will not even brief most of his cabinet until a framework is reached with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu's response to questions from the Israeli press was suitably succinct: "You want headlines, I want an agreement."

Even so, there is a serious problem in procedure. The Americans will sit in on the direct negotiations, something the Arab leaders wanted in the belief that the Obama administration is the most pro-Palestinian in history. The Israelis accepted only reluctantly. In all previous meetings, the Americans entered the talks in a serious way only at the endgame. The argument for the trilateral arrangement is that in any impasse the Americans will be on hand to offer a bridging proposal. The trouble is that this approach will make it harder for the Israelis and the Palestinians to engage.

The risk is that they will take positions designed to elicit American approval. Or they'll be tempted to make harder demands of the other side in the knowledge that the Americans will be obliged to try to get movement on them.

An easy example of how difficult this is going to be is Israel's 10-month-old moratorium on settlement construction that ends on September 26. Originally the moratorium was an Israeli gesture of good faith, put forth in the hope of a reciprocal response from the Palestinians. It was not forthcoming. In the culture of the Middle East, an unrequited gesture is not regarded as magnanimous but as a sign of weakness, and as such inviting further pressure. That, in part, is why the Israelis are unwilling to extend this moratorium. In fact, the Palestinians threatened to end the talks if construction of even a single house resumed. American officials must urge the Palestinian leadership to stop their threats and just recognize that the talks will have to begin with both sides having to make concessions. This is a way the parties will begin to develop a sense from each other as to where flexibility lies.

The key question is where in these circumstances an Oslo level of trust can be achieved. Each side today privately expresses doubts about having a true partner on the other side. Both are susceptible to the anxiety that their hard-liner factions will nullify any reasonable agreement.

In the Oslo process, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had a unique level of trust in Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. For example, when the Israelis suffered a terrorist attack from Gaza, they had to respond and shut down Gaza for a while. Rabin sent a secret note explaining why Israel had to defend itself, but he accompanied it with a check for 15 million shekels, with the stated recognition that it was for the many Palestinians who were put out of work. Arafat exclaimed to his colleagues, "This is a man I can deal with, this is a man I can trust." So much so that when Rabin was assassinated, Arafat is known to have said to his closest colleagues, "This is not only the end of Rabin. This is the end of Arafat."

Today trust-building measures must include an agreed code of conduct for dealing with the outside world. There should be a mutual understanding about preventing disruptive leaks and responding coolly to any that occur: Both sides have people who are prone to leaking. Language is also important. The Israeli prime minister reflected this when he called Abbas a "partner in peace" and stated, "The Jewish people are not strangers in our homeland, the land of our forefathers. But we recognize that another people share this land with us." He added that he came to find "an historic compromise that will enable both peoples to live in peace, security, and dignity."