As George Mitchell has returned fruitless from the first round of proximity talks, prospects for success of the four month long project have already dwindled. A bleak atmosphere of cynicism surrounds Israel and the West Bank, as both Jews and Palestinians believe the talks will be exercises in futility.
The proximity talks seemed doomed from the beginning. The spirit of negotiations was dampened months ago, when in March Netanyahu announced the building of 1,600 new homes in an East Jerusalem settlement, and President Abbas retaliated by announcing that negotiations with Israel would not take place unless there was a freeze on settlement building. However, the subsequent scolding and cajoling by the U.S. resulted in both men decreasing the intensity of their agendas, for the sake of possible negotiations.
Concessions made on both sides do little to actually improve the prospects for negotiation. The Palestinians want the “core” issues to be discussed: the status of Jerusalem, refugees, and borders. However, Israel claims it cannot make any promises, and only substantial progress can be made in direct talks on such issues. This is where the peace process diverges, the maximum issues Israel is willing to discuss is the minimum of Palestinian issues. The Palestinians want to secure an agreement on a future Palestinian state in these proximity talks, while Israel wants to stall and buy time that will maintain the status quo. Abbas and the Palestinians want to take advantage of the opportunity of talks while they still believe they have an ear in Washington that will listen to them, while Netanyahu wants to preserve his hold to power by not doing something that will upset his right-wing coalition.
The role of the U.S. can become crucial at this point. The failure of the peace talks over the last thirty years can be contributed to U.S. hesitancy over whether or not it wanted to be a facilitator or mediator. If the U.S. decides to be a facilitator, letting Israel and Palestine directly negotiate with little interference, the voice of Palestinians will be marginalized as Israel clearly has more leverage. If the U.S. decides to be a mediator, it must steer clear of one-sided biases that hinder an equitable solution.
As the instability of the Arab-Israeli conflict is linked to the instability of the entire region, it is clear that a solution to the conflict is in dire need and cannot be put off any longer. One reason for the lack of assertion in this round of peace talks is that a failure would entail negative consequences for all parties involved. Neither the Palestinians nor Israelis want to be blamed for a failure, and the U.S. does not want its image to degrade even more. Nevertheless, politics must be put aside as the international climate is making it clear a stable solution is needed. In order to reach such a stable solution, the U.S. cannot nudge along negotiations, but rather needs to take an assertive and equitable stance.