Six months of United States diplomatic efforts have finally restarted talks between Israelis and Palestinians, yet pessimism about their potential for success persists.
On Monday, negotiators from both sides met in Washington for the first time since talks broke off three years ago, amid Israel’s refusal to concede to the Palestinian demand that construction in Israeli settlements, illegal under international law, be suspended during the talks.
The latest round of resuscitated talks was finalised when Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners who have been in Israeli prisons for decades. The first group of those prisoners is expected to be released next week, while further releases will occur periodically, depending on the progress of negotiations.
”The talks will serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural work plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months,” a State Department statement said.
The negotiations are expected to last some nine months, at the end of which the U.S. hopes to have an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on all “final status” issues, including borders, settlements, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and other contentious points.
To manage the process, the United States has appointed its former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, as lead negotiator. While early indications are that Indyk is an acceptable choice to both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his appointment has also been controversial on all sides.
Hardline supporters of Israeli policy consider Indyk too soft on the Palestinians. When word first leaked of Indyk’s pending appointment a week ago, Israeli Deputy Minister of Defence Danny Danon, a leading opponent of peace with the Palestinians, wrote a letter to Netanyahu opposing Indyk and asking the Prime Minister to “…ask the American administration for an honest broker for these negotiations.”
He bases his opposition to Indyk’s support of the New Israel Fund, a moderate, liberal international Jewish group which has been the focus of a smear campaign, including unsubstantiated accusations of funding “anti-Zionist” programmes in Israel.
Pro-Palestinian forces have also questioned Indyk’s appointment, claiming that his background with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and his years as the first head of the AIPAC-backed Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), show a strong pro-Israel bias.
Finally, many other observers question the wisdom of appointing a figure who was so central to the failed negotiations of the past, particularly in the 1990s, including the disastrous Camp David II summit of 2000, which preceded the start of the second intifada.
With the framework for the talks shrouded in secrecy by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the appointment of Indyk is one of the few indicators for the direction the talks are being steered in, and therefore the main focal point of analysis. Groups which strongly support the continuation of the Oslo process and a strong and immediate push for a two-state solution have come out strongly in support of Indyk.
Debra DeLee, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, said, “Ambassador Indyk is an experienced diplomat and a brilliant analyst. He has the skills, the depth of knowledge, and the force of personality to serve Secretary Kerry as an excellent envoy.”
“He knows the issues, he knows the leaders and the negotiators, and he has a proven record of commitment to peace and to a progressive Israel that lives up to its founding fathers’ vision of a state that is both Jewish and a democracy.”
DeLee’s view was echoed by Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group, J Street.
“The negotiations ahead promise to be tough and will require active, determined and creative US leadership and diplomacy if they are to succeed. Ambassador Indyk can bring all these attributes to the task. Secretary of State John Kerry could not have chosen a more qualified envoy.”
But Stephen Walt, professor of International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, is dubious about Indyk’s role.
“There are obvious reasons to be concerned by Indyk’s appointment,” Walt told IPS. “He is passionately devoted to Israel, and began his career in the United States working for AIPAC, the most prominent organisation in the Israel lobby.
“He was among the team of U.S. diplomats who bungled the Oslo peace process during the Clinton administration (1993-2001). He was also a vocal supporter of the invasion of Iraq, which casts serious doubt on his strategic judgment or knowledge of the region. There is no reason for the Palestinians to see him as a true ‘honest broker’.”
Yet while Indyk’s past association with the U.S. pro-Israel lobby has raised eyebrows, few doubt that he is currently much less connected to it than his predecessor as the leading interlocutor with Israel and the Palestinians, Dennis Ross. Ross, who played a central role in U.S. Middle East diplomacy in the administrations of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, is currently a counselor at WINEP.
Walt acknowledges the possibility that Indyk’s position might be different now than it was when he last engaged directly in Israel-Palestine peacemaking.
“Indyk’s views seem to have evolved over time,” Walt said. “He may understand that this is his last chance to make a genuine contribution to Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is also the last chance for a genuine two-state solution, which remains the best of the various alternatives.
“Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians should all hope that he surprises us, and that the elder Indyk behaves in ways that the younger Indyk would have strenuously opposed.”