Reviving Middle East Peace Talks

Reviving Middle East Peace Talks

MR. KOJO NNAMDI

13:30:36
This week peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians begin after a three--year silence. There's a goal, there's a deadline and there are two leaders who come to the table amidst deep divisions in their own parties. It's a dance that's been done before, largely with little success. So expectations for a lasting peace deal in the Middle East are somewhat low but there are reasons to be hopeful. And new changes -- new faces at the table who could change the dynamic.

MR. KOJO NNAMDI

13:31:03
Besides the thorny issues at stake, getting to yes, as one famous negotiator put it, will require delicate mediation, dogged determination and calculated compromise. So how do negotiators learn from failed attempts of the past? What makes sense -- what makes these talks any different? And with everything on the table, how do you use the delicate art of diplomacy to resolve a conflict that's 65 years old? Well, joining us in studio to talk about this is Robert Danin. He is senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He's the former head of the office of the quartet representative Tony Blare in Jerusalem. Robert Danin, thank you for joining us.

MR. ROBERT DANIN

13:31:42
Thank you for having me.

NNAMDI

13:31:43
Joining us by phone from Boston is Eileen Babbitt. She's a professor of International Conflict Management Practice and director of the International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Eileen Babbitt, thank you for joining us.

MS. EILEEN BABBITT

13:32:00
My pleasure.

NNAMDI

13:32:01
There was some effort to revive Middle East peace talks three years ago but it's really been five years, at the end of the Bush Administration, since any substantive negotiations took place, Robert. So before we talk about the challenges ahead, let's talk about what makes this new round of peace talks any different from the other times that these talks have started and failed?

DANIN

13:32:22
Well, what makes this round of negotiations a bit different is you now have a secretary of state who is supercharged, who is super empowered, who is very keen to see this done. He's already identified this -- Secretary of State John Kerry -- he's identified this as the number one issue on his priority list. And both of the parties, the Israeli leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas. They know each other. They've negotiated with one another for many years. Neither of them were very keen to get back to the table.

DANIN

13:32:57
What changed this time was the force of personality by Secretary Kerry. And he managed to finesse this and get them back to talks that they really didn't want all that badly.

NNAMDI

13:33:08
How do the nearby conflicts in Syria and now Egypt influence these talks as leaders go to the table?

DANIN

13:33:16
Well, they created different regional dynamic for sure in a regional context. For the Israelis -- for many Israelis there's a sense of the whole region is influx. You have violence and revolution taking place all around us. So let's not rock the boat too much. And in that sense the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas might share some of that sense that now's not a great time to do it.

DANIN

13:33:40
But at the same time, both are also hearing voices from people within their camps. They're saying, look the situation could get a lot worse in the region. And so now's the time to try to make a deal before it eludes us forever.

NNAMDI

13:33:51
Now is the time to call if you'd like to join this conversation. It's 800-433-8850. What are your expectations for the new round of Middle East peace talks. You can also send us email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Eileen Babbitt, Secretary of State John Kerry has said, everything is on the table going into these talks. Is this the best way for two sides to go to the negotiating table without preconditions with a full comprehensive agreement as the expectation and with a solid deadline or goal?

BABBITT

13:34:24
It's actually a good opportunity to have all of the issues again on the table, as they actually have been in the past. And from a negotiation vantage point, if you're trying to create viable packages that parties can say yes to, you have to figure out what the most salient tradeoffs are that people will be able to make. One of the most pressing and, I think, challenging issues for the negotiators is what we would call a two-level game. They have the negotiations that are going on across the table between the Israeli leadership -- the Israeli government leadership and the Palestinian leadership, which is the level one game.

BABBITT

13:35:11
But they also have a level two game, which is what's happening on their own side. And they have to be quite mindful of bringing along as much of their constituency as they can. And different parts of that constituency have interests related to different issues. So the good news about having all of the issues on the table is that it gives the negotiators an opportunity to create options that will meet interests of various parties on their own side. And thereby hopefully bring them along as negotiations proceed.

NNAMDI

13:35:48
Robert, in the five years since the last real round of peace talks, the population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has grown by 20 percent. How powerful a challenge do these settlements create going into these talks?

DANIN

13:36:00
The additional number of settlers in the occupied territories does create a challenge. They are now a formidable force within Israeli politics. And within even the party -- the Likud party that Benjamin Netanyahu heads. And so whereas when the negotiations started back in the early '90s there were about 120 or 150,000 settlers. Now that is doubled if not tripled. So they're a much more formidable political force.

DANIN

13:36:31
That's why the Israelis are very keen to have a territorial exchange in which most of those settlers would be able to remain in place, and so that the number of settlers that would have to be evacuated in a final peace deal would be brought to the absolute minimum. And the political game or challenge for any Israeli leader who wants to make a deal then is to try to drive a wedge between those settlers who are going to stay and then can be supportive of a peace, and those settlers who are going to be evacuated and have no interest in supporting that deal.

NNAMDI

13:37:00
Robert -- you wanted to say, Eileen Babbitt?

BABBITT

13:37:03
No, no. I agree. And it's again part of this internal negotiating dynamic within each side is understanding the various factions and where blocking coalitions could form. Where you have people on your own side of the table that have an interest in undermining progress toward an agreement and will find ways of, as Robert said, driving a wedge between various factions on their own side to prevent that progress. It's a very big challenge and something that the mediator, i.e. John Kerry, is really going to have to pay close attention to.

NNAMDI

13:37:43
Robert, just this past weekend we saw how the issue of the settlements can begin poking holes into a potential agreement even before any negotiations take place. On Sunday the Israeli cabinet expanded its list of West Bank settlements that are eligible for government subsidies which would encourage more people to settle there. The Washington Post quoted a member of the Palestinian negotiating team as saying, "This is exactly what Israel wants, have a process for its own sake. And at the same time have a free hand to destroy the objective of the process. This will have a destructive impact.

NNAMDI

13:38:16
And it seems to me it's up to the sponsors, the United States and the International Community to make Israel desist immediately." End of statement. Settlement construction has not been frozen going into these ninth months of talks. Do you think that needs to happen before a final deal can be made?

DANIN

13:38:34
Well, I think the comment that you quoted is very revealing for two fundamental reasons. I mean, one is it points to the very concern that the Palestinians have going into negotiations, which is that the negotiations just buy time for the Israelis internationally, with their relation with the U.S. while Israel can continue to do what it wants on the ground. That's one big concern.

DANIN

13:38:55
But the second is it reveals that the Palestinians are looking to the United States to really negotiate with. Both parties, in a sense, are looking to the United States to be the one that they negotiate with. And the challenge for the United States, to a certain extent, is to get the parties to negotiate with each other and not take over the negotiations. Settlements were one of the issues that had blocked them getting to the table. Another one was prisoners. This was a demand that the Palestinians sought. There was a third demand which was that the Israeli government accept the 1967 line as the basis for negotiations.

DANIN

13:39:32
The Palestinians got one of those three. They got the prisoners, which was actually quite difficult for Prime Minister Netanyahu and very controversial back in Israel. He's been accused of being more interested in keeping his coalition together by agreeing to release prisoners than doing what the public wants, which would probably have been to do one of the other things that the Palestinians agreed to. But he decided to do it mainly, as Eileen was pointing out, to keep his domestic base in power here.

DANIN

13:40:00
So what you have is both sides are going to have to agree to look the other way to things that give them heartache. We're going to see settlement activity. We're going to see probably an escalation of violence, unfortunately, by those who are opposed to this deal, both on the Israeli and Palestinian side, and that's why one of the things that's so important is John Kerry announced that this would be a nine-month negotiation.

DANIN

13:40:24
Now, that isn't necessarily a -- it's a target date. But what it does is it binds the parties in so that it tries to get them through what is going to be turbulence, so that when there all challenges to the negotiations, they can stay in the room and they can say, you know, I may not like the other side, but I made a commitment to the United States to stay in this negotiation, and that's going to be very important.

NNAMDI

13:40:46
Eileen Babbitt, what kind of negotiating strategies must John Kerry and his appointed envoy, Martin Indyk, keep in mind as they shuttle between the two sides?

NNAMDI

13:40:57
Well, first of all, as I mentioned, they have to keep this two-level game in mind that the negotiators have various audiences and constituencies to whom they are speaking. And this is always a difficulty, as was just said, because you have things going on in public that may be sending a negative message, whereas maybe in the privacy of talks, other options are being pursued, and one can contaminate the other. So they have to be very mindful of that and help the parties manage that second table, the table -- the domestic constituents' table.

BABBITT

13:41:40
I think the other thing they have to do is help the parties be very serious and very realistic about assessing what happens if there is no agreement. Because my sense is that each of these parties may have an inflated or more positive assessment of what their options are if there's no agreement, which makes it harder than to move at the table. So if the mediator can push sort of reality testing of what will actually occur if there is no agreement, let's be very honest about this. And you have to do this in private. You can't push negotiators to do this in public, or maybe -- or even in front of their counterpart.

BABBITT

13:42:32
So that people know what the stakes are, and they're being very realistic about how important it is to make progress at the table as opposed to away from the table unilaterally.

NNAMDI

13:42:42
Got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on reviving Middle East peace talks. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think both sides are ready to compromise, or will the status quo win the day? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

NNAMDI

13:44:57
Welcome back to our conversation on reviving Middle East peace talks. We're talking with Eileen Babbitt, professor of international conflict management practice, and director of the International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Robert Danin, senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations.

NNAMDI

13:45:18
Eileen, what's the incentive to -- what if the incentive to succeed is not enough. Maybe the status quo works just fine for the Israelis. For example, is that kind of thinking damaging going into these talks?

BABBITT

13:45:31
Well, I think there's been a lot written about that, and Robert's probably a good one to comment on how the Israeli government is figuring its alternatives. I think some would say that the status quo is more acceptable from the Israeli perspective because there appears to be a confining of terrorist or violent activity, economically things are moving sort of well within the country, but my sense is, and this is from having been there recently, that sense of security of the status quo is rather false., that it's not a true assessment of the instability.

BABBITT

13:46:22
This is where the instability in the region, and the realistic assessment needs to come in, because it seems to me that there are many more factors that could create instability for Israel than being able to hold on to the situation as it is now.

NNAMDI

13:46:39
Robert?

DANIN

13:46:40
Well, it's really interesting. When peace talks started 20 years ago, they really started in the wake of the first intifada, the first Palestinian uprising. That's what catapulted the parties to the table. Those talks culminated in the Camp David summit in 2000, and that led to the second intifada, and we had even worse violence. And so all throughout that time, the real incentive for the Israeli's was to try to end the violence and come to a political settlement. We now have talks taking place without violence, and yet there's a different Israeli incentive that's at play here, and it's taking place quietly but in very, sort of what I call, elite circles in Israel, which is to say there's now a view in Israel that says, okay, the status quo might be acceptable, but it's static.

DANIN

13:47:26
That's a static view. The dynamic view is that trend lines are not good for us. We are becoming internationally isolated. The demographic changes that are taking place, our growth in the West Bank is actually going to undermine our viability as a Jewish majoritarian state, and is leading us to our own ruin, and that the occupation that began in 1967, which may have began as a self-defense measure and was ultimately designed to ultimately relinquish the territories, has now become something we chewed off and can't digest, and we need to be rid of it in order to preserve ourselves as a Jewish and democratic state.

DANIN

13:48:06
And so there's a different Israeli dynamic now at play, but what has not happened, and this is one of the things that Eileen pointed to, and that's very disturbing, is she pointed to the importance of preparing your public and educating your public, and I think there hasn't been enough of that on the Israeli side, and for sure not enough on the Palestinian side. And that undermines the room for maneuver that the parties -- the negotiators have at the table.

DANIN

13:48:30
They really need their publics behind them, and that means really talking hard truths, speaking truth to your public. And neither party really is doing that in what I would consider an adequate way.

NNAMDI

13:48:41
800-433-8850. What in your view has to change for these talks to succeed? You can also send us email to kojo@wamu.org. That number again, 800-433-8850. Here is Jonathan in Silver Spring, Md. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JONATHAN

13:48:59
Yes. Good afternoon, Kojo. Thank you for talking my call. Speaking of the public, the Arab public is split into two sections, one under of the control of Mr. Abbas and one under the control of Hamas. How will this impact Mr. Hamas' ability -- excuse me, Mr. Abbas's ability to negotiate or to achieve an agreement? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you very much.

NNAMDI

13:49:24
Thank you for your call. Eileen Babbit, do you have President Mahmoud Abbas, who is viewed as fairly weak, and there's Hamas which is in control of Gaza and presumably not enthusiastic about these negotiations.

BABBITT

13:49:36
Exactly. Well, presumably there are still conversations going on behind closed doors, not necessarily exceedingly successful, but at least continuing between Fatah and Hamas, and a conversation happening about how to bring the Palestinian entities together because the recognize that they are more -- they are weaker separate than together. Also, a bit of change in the fortunes of Hamas at this point because of decisions that they made about who to support in Syria and the deposing of the Morsi government in Egypt, et cetera.

BABBITT

13:50:20
So there may be more opportunity, especially now that the United States has taken a strong stance to convene these talks, that this is an opportunity -- and this is again the two-level game. Something that's happening at level one, which is the convening of the talks, may make it easier, or have more incentive, at the level two on the Palestinian side, for Fatah and Hamas to find a way to work together.

NNAMDI

13:50:50
Got an email from Jonathan in Washington D.C. that asks, "Does the role of Hamas's participation in Syria," which Eileen Babbitt mentioned, "discredit Hamas as a player in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks? Who's running things on that side of the negotiation?" Robert, the U.S. has isolated Gaza in an effort to undermine Hamas which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Can there be a lasting peace deal by continuing to isolate Gaza diplomatically, and can you also answer Jonathan's questions about Hamas's participation in Syria, and as Eileen pointed out, Egypt?

DANIN

13:51:25
Well, it's extremely complicated, and as Eileen, you know, Eileen gave the logical response, is that the Palestinians have everything to gain by coming together. Unfortunately, that's not how they're thinking about it. They're thinking too locally. Fatah controls the West Bank, Hamas controls Gaza. Their publics want them to reconcile very badly, but the leaderships pay lip service that, but don't really want to do it, or they don't want to make the compromises that are necessary to reach that deal. Both are pretty satisfied with the status quo, which is each of them controlling their piece of territory, and neither of them are going to make that concession.

DANIN

13:52:02
And the problem with that is, that means that Hamas is outside the negotiation, and it's hard to believe that any deal, no matter how good, that Abbas strikes with the Israelis is going to be acceptable with Hamas. Now, in light of the recent changes, especially in Egypt, Egypt now, under the military, is punishing Hamas. They are closing the border. They are preventing even the smuggling that's taking place, and so Hamas is feeling a lot of pressure. They're feeling weakened.

DANIN

13:52:29
Now, normally you would think a party that is weakened would want to then compromise. No. The fear is that Hamas is about to break out and that we're going to see a resumption of violence out of Gaza, precipitated by Hamas. That's the concern that I hear from Israelis. That's the concern I hear from the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. And so what they're actually looking for is a way to try to take the pressure off of Hamas from lashing out.

DANIN

13:52:54
Because everyone recognizes that Hamas has a veto here. If they start lobbing missiles into Israel, it's going to make it much harder, no matter how much the parties want to talk, for them to do so because it will look like on the one hand, Israel is negotiating while under siege, and it will look like the Palestinian leadership is negotiating with the enemy.

NNAMDI

13:53:12
Eileen, from a negotiating standpoint, how can you incorporate a group like Hamas and the Gaza issue into these negotiations?

BABBITT

13:53:20
Now, there is the key question, isn't it?

NNAMDI

13:53:24
It is.

BABBITT

13:53:28
There -- this is where the U.S. diplomacy is going to be key. There has to -- we have to find a way -- the American negotiators have to find a way to reach Hamas. And it's very challenging because publicly, we, the United States, has labeled Hama a terrorist organization, and so officially we are not allowed to have any contact with them. I'm sure there are other channels through which that communication can take place, and presumably, if there's some way of meeting some of Hamas's interests, whatever that might be, if there needs to be a power sharing arrangement between Fatah and Hamas, and there needs to be some guarantees about that, and some relative, I don't know, federation or something between the two pieces of the Palestinian state.

BABBITT

13:54:29
These are the kinds of things that the mediator has got to explore in particular, so that the alternative of using violence does not seem as appealing.

NNAMDI

13:54:41
Robert?

DANIN

13:54:42
I have a different approach to this. I think that especially borne of my experience on the ground, that Hamas is strong because it controls Gaza, and because Gaza is isolated. And so what they really have is a captive audience. I've been to Gaza. Most of the Gazans actually don't support Hamas. They resent Hamas. And my view is that one of the things that would really weaken Hamas is to open up Gaza, to let Gaza be reconnected with the West Bank.

DANIN

13:55:09
What this would do undermine Hamas's control of the territory. It's politically difficult for this to happen because it means Israel opening up and really making a differentiation between Gaza and Hamas. Everyone talks about the two as the same, but they're different. Gaza is a territory. Hamas is the group that controls it, but it doesn't enjoy popular support. It keeps the population there by force of arms. And so by opening it up, letting trade happen, letting contact happen, and ultimately allowing Palestinian elections to take place, I think would undermine Hamas much more effectively.

DANIN

13:55:47
There was an opportunity for the use of force in 2009. Israel invaded Gaza, but Israel decided not to topple Hamas. Not because they couldn't, but because it didn't want to, because ultimately it saw that if they removed Hamas, the situation would get even worse, and that you'd have chaos in Gaza. So if there's no military solution, and they are indeed a terrorist organization, so I'm not sure negotiating with them right now is the right way. I say weaken them, but weaken them smartly.

NNAMDI

13:56:12
Eileen, let's talk about the legacy issue in the couple of minutes we have left. There's been a sense that Secretary of State John Kerry wants these talks more than the parties themselves do. Netanyahu is in his third term as prime minister. Abbas is seen as fairly weak. How does legacy weigh into these looming talks?

BABBITT

13:56:32
Probably quite significantly, and it will probably be part of Kerry's strategy to impress upon both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas that their legacies also are on the line here, and that by moving in a more constructive, cooperative, creative direction, not demonizing the other, looking for opportunities to create -- to go down in history as the men who literally made the peace agreement that ended this, to appeal to that kind of legacy, while at the same time, of course, being realistic about what is needed, but he's go to -- the leaders of these two parties has to believe that they can create something better together than they can separately, and it's Kerry's job to make sure that they see that.

NNAMDI

13:57:33
Robert Danin, you have about 30 seconds.

DANIN

13:57:35
Well, I think Eileen is absolutely right. I think that they -- both parties have to change the way they think about this, and their calculations have to change. And that can only take place in the context of quiet in negotiations where the two sides form a bond and a mutual interest in a better outcome for both sides. It's going to take time, and it best take place in quiet away from the press, and it's a long shot, but I think that's the only way it can happen.

NNAMDI

13:58:01
Robert Danin is senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's the former head of the Office of the Quartet Representative Tony Blair in Jerusalem. Robert Danin, thank you for joining us.

DANIN

13:58:12
Thank you.

NNAMDI

13:58:12
Eileen Babbitt is a professor of international conflict management practice, and director of the International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Eileen Babbit, thank you for joining us.

BABBITT

13:58:24
Thank you so much.

NNAMDI

13:58:26
And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885.1200.
The Kojo Nnamdi Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.