A Summer of Hope

A Summer of Hope

Peace talks led by Senator George Mitchell are underway again between Israel and Palestinians.  The Obama administration has shown it will not tolerate actions by either side that would derail the talks again.  So far the administration has shown extraordinary courage and cool, working to keep diversions in check and to keep all parties focused on the job at hand.

The March 9 Israeli announcement about housing in East Jerusalem during the visit of Vice President Biden was followed March 12 by a conversation between Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu in which the State Department spokesman said, “The Secretary [said she]could not understand how this happened…”.  And she “made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate … they are committed … to the peace process”.

Publicly questioning Israel’s commitment to peace is very strong diplomatic language indeed. The next week a Washington meeting between the President and the Prime Minister ended without any statement, suggesting differences remained.

Easter and Passover were followed by public posturing by various parties, but peace talks under Mitchell finally did start on May 9.  Despite denials, the key element of the resumption is the de facto suspension of new Israeli construction activity in East Jerusalem, a necessary step to bringing the Palestinians to the negotiating table.   The State Department issued a statement saying Israel had pledged no construction for two years in the east Jerusalem neighborhood that was the subject of the controversy March 9, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had pledged to work against incitement of any sort.   Israeli officials have denied there had been a decision to suspend construction in East Jerusalem, but that in fact is the case for now.
The same day the State Department issued a stern warning against any action by either party that could derail the talks again. “If either takes significant actions during the proximity talks that we judge would seriously undermine trust, we will respond to hold them accountable and ensure that negotiations continue.”  In other words, the U.S. is determined that the talks will go forward and will not allow either side to undermine them.

This is unprecedented.  The United States has changed the game.  No longer will talks go on while Israeli expansion continues into Palestinian lands, and any Palestinian incitement or other acts that could undermine confidence will not be tolerated.   The United States is now actively involved in seeking an agreement rather than leaving the two sides to their own devices.

There are timelines attached to these talks. Both Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell said early this year they expected to reach an agreement in two years.  Two years is probably the maximum time possible that pressures for Israeli expansion can be contained without an agreement.   It also coincides with the end of the current Obama administration.

There is an interim deadline of September 10.   That is the date when the suspension of Israeli construction in the West Bank is scheduled to expire.  It is also the date that the “proximity” talks led by Mitchell are expected to end, to be followed by direct negotiations.  This will put pressure on the Palestinians to be sure there is enough progress in negotiations by that time to put pressure on Israel to continue the talks and continue the construction suspension.

The second round of talks led by Mitchell took place this week.  Progress has been reported, including a Palestinian offer to increase the amount of land along the 1967 border that could be swapped.
Hold your breath.   With so much at stake it promises to be an interesting diplomatic summer.

[The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ are members of Churches for Middle East Peace.]