Opinions

The value of Mideast ‘talks about talks’

Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement last week that he had “established a basis” for Israeli­Palestinian negotiations to resume was greeted with no small amount of cynicism. Middle East peace talks, alternately quiet and grand, have come and gone with little to show. Kerry’s efforts have been dismissed as “talks about talks” and the announcement of a meeting between the two sides viewed as a token return on his heavy diplomatic investment.

But as easy as it is to be jaded about the Middle East peace process, preparatory negotiations of the sort Kerry has engaged in serve an important purpose.

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Although its centrality in regional or global affairs is often exaggerated, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important in its own right and needs to be resolved. Critical issues at the moment relate to timing: Given the turmoil in the region and domestic political uncertainties on both sides, is either side ready for a serious peace push, and should this issue be a priority for the United States?

Preparatory discussions can answer these questions. These arm’s-length negotiations, which concern terms of reference and other guidelines for ensuing talks, serve three distinct purposes.

First, they are a vehicle for signaling to the other party and domestic constituencies. Both sides face a paradox: Each has an interest in engaging in talks for the sake of talks, if for no other reason than to mollify regional opinion and preserve good relations with the United States and the European Union. But both sides are also wary that the other is doing the same thing — stringing it along without any intention of making concessions or reaching agreement.

So both sides demand upfront “payment” in the form of preconditions. These can consist of an agreement to broad outlines of a future deal, such as the Palestinians’ requirement that the parties use the “1967 lines” as a baseline for negotiating a border or Israel’s insistence on being recognized as a “Jewish state”; side payments not specifically related to the talks, such as Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners; or agreements governing the parties’ behavior during the talks, such as Israel restraining settlement activity or the Palestinians refraining from further unilateralism at the United Nations.

Each type of “payment” signals seriousness and ensures that the other side cannot use talks merely to play for time. But rules governing behavior during the talks also serve to save both leaders from themselves: Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, for example, has little to show for his unilateralism other than dashed Palestinian expectations and a tarnished reputation in Washington, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is keenly aware that settlement expansion carries a diplomatic cost and reduces his negotiating flexibility.

Second, pre-talks speed the negotiations once they commence. In a 2002 Rose Garden speech and a letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President George W. Bush asserted that Palestinians deserve a state that is “viable” and “contiguous” while also saying that Israel would not be expected to withdraw to the pre-1967 armistice lines and that the bulk of Palestinian refugees would need to find homes in the eventual Palestinian state, not Israel.

These assertions reflected realities that many on both sides already understood (in contrast to the notion of an “American plan,” which necessarily involves breaking new ground on contentious and sensitive disputes). Nevertheless, for the parties to make them official policy would have been difficult, if not impossible, absent the U.S. statement, which offered diplomatic cover to face facts and move forward.

Third, preparatory talks can also build confidence between the negotiating parties. It forces both sides to designate teams and to begin arduous internal negotiations to develop positions on difficult issues. It also allows the two sides to engage with each other and with the United States to gauge their counterparts’ authority and trustworthiness and to build rapport by negotiating over less-weighty issues than those that loom down the diplomatic road.

While some may clamor for a quick resumption of the high-level talks over “core issues” in which Abbas and former prime minister Ehud Olmert engaged in 2007, it is better that lower-level officials prepare the ground and hand things over to their superiors once agreement is close. Failure at the negotiator level may represent a setback; a breakdown in talks at the leadership level can herald catastrophe.

The ultimate question that preparatory talks are designed to answer is whether both sides are serious about reaching an agreement. Netanyahu has sought to answer that question forcefully, declaring the resumption of negotiations to be in Israel’s “vital strategic interest.” Abbas wears two hats, as head of both a movement and a would-be state. If peace talks are to succeed this time, he must take off the first hat, which he has often seemed to favor, and accept the burden of the second. Palestinians, too, must recognize that their vital interest lies in peace.

 
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