Washington — As top Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators prepared for a July 30 meeting in a last-ditch attempt to reach an agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of the year, expectations of a breakthrough are decidedly low in their respective capitals.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister and chief negotiation Ahmed Qurei are scheduled to meet in Washington with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for talks aimed at reaching a final-status agreement before the Bush administration leaves office this coming January. The skepticism is palpable, however, among American, Israeli and Palestinian officials alike.
As Livni headed off to Washington on July 28, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly declared that the goal of reaching an agreement this year was unattainable. Palestinians, for their part, expressed incredulity at final-status issues being discussed before tangible changes are made on the ground. And in Washington, Rice is seen as pursuing a vision that was outlined last November by President Bush but since all but abandoned by the White House.
The divide between the White House and State Department on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks became apparent July 23, when Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams met with Jewish communal leaders in New York. In a closed-door meeting, Abrams, who overseas Middle East affairs for the White House, cast skepticism on the Livni-Qurei peace talks. According to participants in the meeting, Abrams said that even if any agreement is reached in these talks, it would be between only Livni and Qurei, not between the Israeli and Palestinian governments.
The participants added that Abrams went on to discount the prospect of Olmert leading a drive to sign a final-status agreement.
“He doesn’t have the political weight to sell such an agreement to the Israeli public,” Abrams said, according to one of the participants.
Several days later, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino also sought to lower expectations of peace talks.
“We’ve always said that we wouldn’t be able to get a final peace deal in terms of everything being resolved,” Perino said in a July 28 press briefing. America’s goal, she added, is to “outline all the steps that they would have to take to move forward.” Despite the pessimism back home, Rice appears to be determined to reach a peace deal by the year’s end. Speaking with reporters in Perth, Australia, only two days after Abrams’s remarks, Rice said that “there is still time for them” to reach an agreement this year.
“We will keep working towards that goal,” Rice said.
State Department officials later reiterated that the United States is still aiming to reach an agreement by January 2009.
Rice’s Israeli counterpart has encountered similar skepticism about the prospects of peace from her superiors in Jerusalem, despite insinuations of substantial progress.
Livni’s talks with Qurei are being held under a veil of secrecy, and detailed reports on their content are not provided. Advisers to the foreign minister and Israeli officials have said several times that the talks have broached issues untouched in the past, and that the two sides are closer than ever to a comprehensive agreement on all outstanding final-status issues.
Olmert, however, does not share the sense of a breakthrough in the near future. On the eve of Livni’s departure to Washington for the trilateral talks, Olmert told members of the Knesset that he does not believe an agreement could be reached this year, because of the complexity of the Jerusalem issue.
Olmert and Livni are in the midst of a bitter political rivalry, with the foreign minister positioning herself as Olmert’s chief critic within his party, Kadima. Livni is seeking to replace Olmert as party leader in the upcoming primary elections.
On the Palestinian side, skepticism is also at an all-time high. While the government led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is supportive of attempts to reach a final-status agreement by the year’s end, the main focus at the moment is on short-term agreements that can change life on the ground.
“Public trust in the peace process is very low” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to the Palestinian president. Al-Omari, who now serves as director of advocacy for the American Task Force on Palestine, said that the Palestinian public does not believe reports of progress in the talks because they clash with the reality on the ground.
“It’s unfortunate that Condi Rice keeps on being so ideological instead of focusing on issues on the ground, such as the settlements,” al-Omari said.
While Rice continues to endorse and actively support the final-status talks between Livni and Qurei, State Department officials are becoming increasingly critical of Israel’s action regarding the short-term issues detailed in the roadmap peace plan. In closed-door meetings, according to individuals who attended, James Cunningham, the incoming American ambassador to Israel, has voiced frustration with Israel’s lack of progress on issues related to a settlement freeze, the removal of roadblocks and the strengthening the Palestinian Authority. And the American consul general in Jerusalem, Jake Walles, has said that Israel has done less than the Palestinians in terms of adhering to the roadmap commitments, according to Israeli and American sources.
In an attempt to resolve ongoing disputes with the Bush administration over Palestinian freedom of movement and to give free access to Palestinian areas under Israeli military control, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed to a request put forward July 29 by Rice to enter into talks on security arrangements in the Palestinian territories. After his meeting with Rice, Barak told reporters that he would begin “intensive dialogue” with James Jones, the administration’s special envoy to the region.
At the same time, Barak made clear that he, too, has doubts about the chances of achieving an accord before the Bush administration leaves office.
“It’s like in tango,” Barak said in Washington on July 29. “It takes two.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman