The trappings at Tuesday's press conference at the U.S. State Department were minimalist. The event was formal - but far from festive. A spartan podium, two small tables, and a few glasses of water occupied the center of the room. Flags were placed in the background, as decreed by protocol.
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The speeches, too, were minimalist. After waiting for over an hour, reporters who attended the session were treated to a short, sober session of comments - less than 20 minutes in all - delivered by the somber-looking trio of U.S. Secretarty of State John Kerry, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
None of the fireworks, cries of joy or bombastic statements that have accompanied previous such events over the last 20 years were present; much of the time, a markedly dour countenance filled the speakers' faces.
Erekat, who typically gives lengthy, inflammatory speeches, spoke for less than two minutes and got straight to the point: The Palestinians can only gain from the talks, as what they want is an independent state. Livni, for her part, spoke of realism, the Middle East’s instability, Israel's security needs and the importance of not being naïve; only at the end did some words of hope make an entrance.
On a side note, it is worth noting that Livni took the opportunity to compliment Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as never before. Over the past four months of joint work with the prime minister, their relationship has soared to new levels of trust. While it remains to be seen if Kerry will manage to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, it is clear he has had succeeded in dispelling the acrimonious mistrust that has, until now, defined the two's relationship.
The only speaker who delivered slightly far reaching declarations was Kerry. After weeks of trying to lower expectations, he announced that the goal is a final-status agreement within nine months. Kerry truly believes this is possible. But it’s unclear if saying it aloud was wise.
Netanyahu sought on Tuesday to present Kerry’s promise that all the issues would be discussed, and not just the borders of a Palestinian state, as a victory. It’s true that issues important to Israel, like security, will also be discussed. But the day is fast approaching when Netanyahu will finally have to present his vision of where the border will be. As long as U.S. Middle East envoy Martin Indyk's presence graces the negotiating room, any evasive maneuver on Netanyahu's part will be quickly shot down. If the talks proceed, he will no longer be able to evade giving a clear answer to this question, which the right has hitherto viewed as anathema.
Skepticism about the process that began on Tuesday is widespread, and expectations are lower than ever before. But this very sobriety might hold the key to success. Just like when the league underdog plays the reigning champion in soccer, low expectations mean the media exerts less pressure, and even a zero-zero tie is considered a success. Similarly, these low-key, modest negotiations may yet produce a big win.