From West Wing to West Bank: progress on Israel Palestine talks

This week the effort to get the two sides of the Israeli Palestinian conflict negotiating again paid off.

Dermot Kehoe is the CEO of BICOM

In the US liberal fantasy that is the West Wing, there is a scene when chief of staff Leo McGarry is standing tentatively outside a door in the basement of the White House summoning the courage to enter a secret Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He turns to the VP and asks: “Do I have enemies in that room?”.

Entering rooms when we don’t know what will happen inside is often a source of fear and anxiety. Inevitably the Germans have a word for it: Schwellenangst.

A tremendous amount of effort and political capital has been expended in recent months by the White House, and in particular secretary of state John Kerry, to get the two sides of the Israeli Palestinian conflict across the threshold and back into the negotiating room. This week that effort paid off.

For all of us on the left this should be a cause for unalloyed celebration – a no brainer. True, expectations are understandably low, given the differences that remain between the parties. But, if there is ever going to be a realisation of the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians to statehood, peace and security then it will be through the creation of two states for two peoples and that can only be achieved through negotiations.

There is an impressive sobriety and realism about the way the parties are approaching the process. This was reflected in yesterday’s press conference. The speeches by the negotiators also reflected a seriousness of purpose, without unnecessary grandstanding. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat spoke briefly and to the point, telling the journalists: “It’s time for the Palestinians to live in peace, freedom, and dignity within their own independent, sovereign state.”

Livni addressed Erekat directly, saying to him: “We didn’t reach dead end in the past, but we didn’t complete our mission.”

Indeed she has been waiting five years, since the Annapolis process unravelled due to the resignation of then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, to get back around the table with the Palestinians and complete the job she started – of getting to the final status accord she sees as vital to Israel’s interests.

The only details Kerry gave about the process were that the parties would meet again within a couple of weeks, that all core issues are on the table, and that the process was scheduled for nine months. This means the idea of a more narrow focus on fixing borders and security arrangements has been rejected. This reflects Israel’s objections that it was not prepared to make concession on the territorial question without having the Palestinians make parallel concessions, in particular on refugees.

The nine month time frame appears to guarantee there will be no repeat of the failure in 2010, when the process of talks initiated by George Mitchell broke up over just three weeks, with the Palestinians walking away after the expiry of an Israeli ten month moratorium on settlement construction.

Also Kerry claimed: “I will be the only one… authorized to comment publicly on the talks, in consultation, obviously, with the parties. That means that no one should consider any reports, articles, or other – or even rumors – reliable, unless they come directly from me, and I guarantee you they won’t.”

This sounds a tall order, but even in the process leading up to this moment there has been impressive discipline on all sides about containing information on the details of what is being discussed.

Whilst the gaps between the sides are significant, this is clearly the best chance to reach a conflict ending agreement for some time.

However, my mood of unalloyed joy is not universally shared. The problem with negotiations is that to be successful they require difficult and painful compromises from both parties. There are rejectionists and extremists on both sides who are not prepared to make those choices.

For those on the left who have a simplistic analysis of the conflict as one between victims and oppressors, rather than a tragic conflict between competing national aspirations, compromise is synonymous with sell out.

However the left should be on the side of the moderates in both camps. Look at what the Israeli left, its Labour Party and progressive activists are saying in this newly published Fabian Pamphlet.

There was also another cause for optimism this week, in another room, almost 6,000 miles away from where the negotiations were taking place. In Jerusalem, in the home of the Israeli Parliament a delegation of Palestinian politicians met for the first time with a group of Israeli counterparts, largely from the left, to discuss their mutual support for two states for two people.

For the first time in its history a Palestinian flag was proudly draped alongside the Israeli flag, in the symbol of Israeli democracy and statehood, the Knesset building.

If they can overcome their schwellenangst – then shouldn’t we?

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