As peace talks cranked into a higher gear, with Palestinian and Israeli leaders finally meeting face-to-face in Washington and limbering up for the next round in Cairo, Haaretz caught up with David Makovsky, one of America's leading Mideast analysts, to ask if there is really enough meat to the new negotiations to appease the cynics.
Amr Moussa, the Secretay General, of the Arab League, predicted on Friday that the new round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will be the last. Do you agree?
September will be the month the moratorium issue will be decided, one way or another. Once you’re in talks, one side is going to want to preserve his political capital - but it can't do that if the other side is being demolished. There needs to be some creative thinking this month. You basically need Mona Lisa diplomacy - every way you look at her she smiles at you
Some are skeptical that any agreement will be effective with the current rift of the Palestinian leadership.
I tend to believe that Hamas will try to spoil from the inside too, and I’ve discussed this with Palestinian officials in Ramallah who will agree with me, but there is a huge difference between what happened in the 90’s and what is happening today. With Arafat, you felt that he was playing a double game with a green light to terror, and that really destroyed confidence on the Israeli side.
I think now we don’t have any of that ambiguity with Abu Mazen because no one sees him like Arafat. Abbas and Hamas are bitter rivals, nobody believes there’s any green light for terror - quite the opposite - there’s excellent security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Abbas and Fayad are determined to continue it. The amount of violence has sharply dropped.
I think most Israelis are saying that if there’s 100 percent effort against the terrorists, there might not always be 100 percent results, but as long as there’s no double game, we will not allow rejectionists to explode the chance for peace.
So I think that the Hamas issue looks different today than it did in the 90’s. Will Iran try to help Hamas? Sure. When I was having lunch with Abbas in Ramallah he said to me that the Iranians give them $500 million a year, but beyond the money there’s the question of ideological attachment - although Americans tend to think everything is about giving people a piece of the pie and then they will be brought into the system, and that it’s all about power. I am very skeptical about this, so the main thing is for Abu-Mazen to deliver.
Hamas is not ten feet tall, in the last polls I’ve seen they’re running about 13 points behind Abu Mazen, so people who talk about how Abbas is weak and Hamas is strong, they’re wrong. And Abu-Mazen’s numbers will grow bigger if he can deliver.
You have this unusual thing where the polls say each side wants a two state solution, but when you ask the follow-up question – 'Does the other side want a two state solution?' - they say 'no'. It seems to me that gap can be filled by leadership, and that means that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership need to synchronize their political messaging. I think that’s crucial”.
When Netanyahu said: “Shalom, Salam, Peace”, what was he trying to project?
Begin used it too. Netanyahu is trying to humanize his image in the Arab world, and I think he was effective in the most part. He was very respectful to Abbas and he demonstrated that he knows peace means that Israel is going to have to partition the land. After this summit you can’t say anymore that there’s no partner in peace.
That was the key thing - the tone of Netanyahu to the Israeli public was that 'this is serious'. And I think that’s what counts.
So Netanyahu probably had his best week in Washington that he’s had in years. He came speaking a language that American’s have wanted him to speak for a long time. He spoke of Abbas as a partner for peace, he spoke of a need for historic compromise to share the land, that is traditionally not the way that Netanyahu has come to Washington.
Ironically the fact that there were such low expectations, lower than the level of the Dead Sea, mean it should be easier for the leaders on both sides to have some room to maneuver, because there’s no expectation of breakthrough.
So how will the sides overcome the deadlock over the freeze on settlements construction?
I think that this whole argument about settlements is the best reason to focus on borders early on. From the Israeli point of view, you have all these settlers living in legal limbo for forty years - they don’t know if they are inside the tent or outside, and there needs to be some clarity: are going to be in part of the sovereign state of Israel where they can build skyscrapers if they want to, or will they be in a Palestinian state?
Now Abbas has said that he understands that Israel will keep settlement blocks, the only issue is - is it all the settlement blocks or is it some of the settlement blocks. Each one of them knows what the other wants. It’s hard to believe that the sum of the differences between Abbas and Olmert was 4 percent of the land. Most people don’t know that most of the settlers live in less than 4.5 percent of the land. And the Palestinians know that much of this area is going to be Israeli.
Advisers have said President Obama has been 'involved personally' in the process from day one, but not necessarily 'through public actions'. When can we expect him to visit the region?
They know he’s going to come to Israel at a certain point, and they want to time it to get the most out of it. If you look at when Bill Clinton came in 1998, it was at the time the Palestinians the repealed the Covenant of the PLO Charter that talked about Israel’s existence. Once you’re in the process, they want to make sure that when the president comes it will have the maximum dramatic effect.
There is a one year timeline for the current talks. There have also bee projection that in a year's time, Iran will be capable of building an atom bomb. Are these things related?
This is speculation - the only one who knows that answer is Netanyahu. He used the phrase 'one year at least' at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York in July. It didn’t get much attention, but this was something he said. Maybe he feels that talks are the way to improve his relations with Obama in the run-up to Iran, before making big decisions. I would not rule it out. Each side may have its own hidden agenda, but I also think neither side could afford to walk out on the U.S. and on the Obama administration. No side wants to be blamed for the failure of talks, and so that gives the United States some leverage.
American has made clear these talks will be private. Does that go together with the need to prepare public on the both sides for peace?
We’ve got to balance the public's need to have a sense of where it is going on with the need to build trust between the leaders. Netanyahu clearly wants to maintain a close hold on the information because he might feel that what is discussed is political dynamite within his coalition. But since it’s the Middle East, I don’t believe that there will be 100 percent news blackout over the next year.
We’ve heard many times in the past year and a half that this might be 'the last opportunity for peace'. Is it?
Nobody knows for sure if there’s no more chance for peace - but how credible will negotiations be after a certain point, if Fayad and Abbas are discredited, having brought nothing to their people? The alternative is Hamas, and there is certainly a fear of radicalization. And over time, there’ll probably be a lot of fresh graves and a lot of old problems.
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