Writing in the Washington Post today, Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist in Ramallah, makes an important point about the timing of the Middle East peace talks launched last week (yes, again) and set to continue in mid-September in Egypt.
Kuttab notes that the scheduling of the talks is carefully timed to the US election calendar. He notes that by starting the process now, in advance of the mid-term elections in November, President Obama can bask in the glow of early posturing by both sides, since both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are likely to make dovish and conciliatory statements at the outset of the talks. Then, with the elections safely past and the 2012 presidential elections still far away, the real pushing and shoving can begin. That's good, if you believe that Obama intends to put pressure on the parties (read: on Israel) to get the outlines of a settlement done by the end of the one year deadline that the White House has set. As Kuttab says: "Holding the talks now allows for positive press and photo opportunities before the midterm elections, while any potential arm-twisting will be completed long before the start of the presidential reelection season."
That’s the optimistic scenario. Lots could go wrong. The whole process could blow up in late September if Israel ends its moratorium on new Jewish outposts in the occupied West Bank. Also, it isn't at all clear that President Obama intends to do what's been rumored, namely, to put forward an American peace plan if, as expected, the talks stall. And the Israelis are masters at stalling and obfuscating, having had decades of practice befuddling previous presidents. But if Obama does intend to outflank AIPAC and the Israel lobby, then finessing the electoral calendar is a smart strategy. Most presidents, Middle East watchers know, don’t even think about Israel-Palestine talks until late in the second term, when they are lame ducks who don't care any longer about AIPAC.
Even though there have been rumblings for a year or more that the Obama administration believes that fixing the Palestine problem is important for US national security, since a great deal of the anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world is founded on resentment of the US-Israel partnership, it's far from certain that Obama will follow through. Kuttab provocatively suggests that if the talks falter, the Palestinians will call Obama's bluff by declaring a state on their own and seeking international recognition, which would force Obama either to give the new Palestine his support or risk being seen as an Israeli pawn.
As Kuttab writes: “If the talks fails because of Israeli obstructionism, Palestinians will have no choice but to declare their state unilaterally and hope the world will recognize it. Those Americans who witness Palestinian conduct in the negotiating room over the coming year will have to decide whether to recognize the state or keep this conflict festering.”
Of course, it also isn't clear whether Abbas and his allies will risk such a confrontation by declaring a state even if the talks fall apart. As Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator now at the New America Foundation, notes, Abbas is precariously isolated not just from Hamas but from other Palestinian factions in his own base who suspect that the talks are a charade. "Much of Fatah, the other smaller factions that make up the PLO, and virtually all of organized and mobilized Palestinian civil society and diaspora groups have now placed themselves in opposition to this week's process and to the negotiations and negotiators," Levy wrote in the Huffington Post last week.
Despite an avalanche of Israeli and pro-Israeli propaganda in recent weeks attempting to portray Netanyahu as a peacemaker, it's extremely unlikely that the Israeli leader has any intention of budging on core issues such as the settlements, Jerusalem and Israel’s supposed Biblical right to "Judea and Samaria." If he budges, it will be because he's kicked uphill. Such kicking, if it ever happens, won't talk place until mid-2011, however.