What's Different About These Mideast Peace Talks

Publicly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have said they welcome the latest round of the peace process. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Keleman outlines the stakes and the expectations for the meetings.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This week, a familiar scene here in Washington: The president of the United States greets the leader of the Palestinian Authority and the prime minister of Israel. Then, the secretary of state facilitates yet another effort to make progress toward peace in the Middle East. Question looming over the first direct talks in two years is, how this time is different.

The Obama administration points to Palestinian progress, building state institutions, a growing economy in the West Bank, and Israel's moratorium on construction of new settlements as causes for optimism. The president of Egypt and the king of Jordan will be on hand as the talks get underway.

What do you think makes these talks different from earlier rounds? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. NPR diplomacy correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us here in Studio 3A. Always nice to have you on the program.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And I know you've asked people, what makes it different this time around?

KELEMEN: I have, Neal, and George Mitchell, the Middle East envoy, said, well, we'll see it when we get there. He didn't give very much details about how they're doing this. But one interesting thing is that they're starting this sort of in a low-key way. I mean, this isn't Madrid, this isn't Annapolis, which was President Bush's effort at the last year, to bring all this big summit together. This is a very quiet meeting.

You know, you'll have the two leaders at the White House, along with the Egyptian and the Jordanian leaders. You also have the Quartet representative, Tony Blair. So this is an effort to bring in the international community in a different way. The Quartet is the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia.

So a lot of it, what we're seeing so far, is just the choreography is a little bit different. Also, the fact is that there aren't any more taboos. I mean, these are issues that have been talked about for years. There's a nearly 20-year negotiating record when you talk about the core issues. The borders of a Palestinian state, security, status of Jerusalem and what do you do with the right of Palestinian refugees - whether they get the right to return. So these are all issues that have been discussed before.

There have been progress in the past, failures in the past; so there is a legacy, there is a history that they can build on. And they're not starting from square one, at least that's the hope.

CONAN: Well, if we know the geography of perhaps a final settlement, as you say, there are other issues that remain to be decided - final status of Jerusalem, as you say, the right to return for Palestinians - but there have also been political risks for everybody involved.

For example, for Mahmound Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, how can he possibly negotiate for the Palestinian people when he does not even control Gaza? And Hamas is, presumably, we think, the most popular political party in the Palestinian areas.

KELEMEN: Well, that's obviously a big concern, and that's why Israelis are so skeptical about this. How can we make peace with half of the Palestinians? And Abbas himself, you know, he comes here facing a lot of pressure from the administration. He wanted the Israelis to renew this moratorium on settlement construction, for instance. He said that, you know, I can't talk while they're building more on a part of the land that's going to be part of a Palestinian state. So he's taking political risks as well.

But, you know, as everyone I've talked to have said, there's no good time to start this. And Mitchell has said that as well.

CONAN: Benjamin Netanyahu faces pressure from his coalition. They say - members of his coalition say it is outrageous that people would tell us to stop building construction in our own capital.

KELEMEN: And this is something, you know, the U.S. has dealt with this in the past. I mean, Israeli politics have always been a problem. You have players here in Washington, that really understand that. Someone like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a politician herself, understands those political risks.

I think what you're going to see, at least what I'm hearing from the secretary's staff, is you'll see her going out to the region, probably President Obama going out to the region, as well, to try to encourage the Israeli public that this is worth investing in, and trying to get over just the usual roadblocks of Israeli politics, Palestinian politics, and try to get sort of a constituency for peace, because there is so much skepticism out there.

CONAN: And the other players. We have President Hosny Mubarak of Egypt, said to be ill, said to be trying to prepare a succession for his son, facing political opposition - well, the degree to which political opposition is allowed in Egypt to this point is debatable. But there's great upset there.

KELEMAN: In fact, there's a whole group of analysts I was speaking with yesterday. There's the Egypt working group that's trying to get a lot more attention on that, that - saying that, yes, he's here for the Middle East talks, but President Obama needs to pull him aside and talk to him about some of these issues, because the future of Egypt is going to be - not only key to the peace process, but to the region as a whole. So there's been a lot of pressure on President Obama to at least raise some specific issues, like getting in more monitors to monitor upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt and also the presidential election, which is the much bigger issue at stake.

CONAN: Our guest is Michele Keleman, NPR diplomacy correspondent, as a new round of Middle East peace talks begins tomorrow here in Washington, D.C. What's different this time? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll go to Sam(ph), Sam with us from Hood River in Oregon.

SAM (Caller): Hey. What's different this time?

CONAN: Yes, what's different this time, Sam?

SAM: Nothing.

CONAN: And...

SAM: Nothing is different this time. This is a media circus. Obama has indicated very clearly that he's not going to rein in the Israelis. He's going to kiss up to Netanyahu. He's going to let him continue to build settlements. And this is just a rape of the Palestinian people.

CONAN: And why are the Palestinians here then?

SAM: Well, it's a - it's more political theater.

CONAN: Just...

SAM: Abbas has got come to keep getting the - getting those payments.

CONAN: Is there a financial component to this for the Palestinian Authority, Michele Keleman?

KELEMAN: Well, the U.S. has given a lot of money, over the years, to the Palestinian Authority. And they've also invested a lot in this idea of a state building, as you were mentioning at the beginning, that there is a - the Palestinian Authority only controls the West Bank, and there, even only parts of it - that there is a government that's doing a lot, trying to build up to become a real state. The - there was a lot of pressure for Abbas to come here for this. And I think one of the messages that the administration has been giving him, is that this is the only way to achieve a Palestinian state, is through negotiations.

CONAN: There is also - he said the President will not rein in the Israelis. The U.S. relationships with Israel have been decidedly chillier in the Obama administration, not too much lately.

KELEMAN: Well, I think one of the problems for President Obama is that he set the bar really high last year, when he said that - and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that we want no settlements, that means no natural growth. She used all this language that indicated they weren't going to hold back. So when they got what they got, which was this partial 10 months moratorium from the Israelis, they then tried to say that that was a big deal. But when they had set the bar too high, it was hard to persuade anybody of that. And now, this partial moratorium is set to expire, and you've seen a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations on how do you finesse this now, because Netanyahu said he doesn't want to extend it. And Abbas says he's going to walk out of talks if the settlement building resumes.

CONAN: Let's go to David(ph), David with us from San Francisco.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. One thing that occurred to me that might be different about these talks is, with respect to another player, which is the American public, is that they're happening in the wake of the flotilla incident. And it seems like the mood has changed a little bit, at least, among members of the American public, in terms of accepting or approving all Israeli actions. And the flotilla incident was sort of the latest of those things that Israeli - Israel did that people in American didn't seem to like. And, of course, that came in the wake of the massacre in Gaza. So I'm wondering if, perhaps, the American public might put a little pressure on Obama this time, and Secretary of State Clinton, to do something.

CONAN: The flotilla incident, of course, the violence that erupted when ships on their way to provide aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Violence erupted when the Israeli commandos boarded those ships in an effort to stop them. They did stop them, but several people died. Any indication, Michele Keleman, that the attitude of the American public has changed fundamentally towards the situation in the Middle East and U.S. support for Israel?

KELEMAN: I think it's changing. I mean, there's, definitely, a lot of different movements and there is sort of a constituency for the peace process in a different way, now, than there was in the past. There's - I was talking to an analyst today from the U.S. Institute of Peace, Scott Lasensky, who's been writing, you know, books about the history of U.S. involvement. And he says, he thinks more - now more than ever that this administration has more leeway with Congress to do the kind of things that are needed to be done in the Middle East.

CONAN: Arm twisting, is that what we're going to be talking about here?

KELEMAN: Well, you know, they call it bridging proposals, is the language of the peace process that we're hearing. You know, that this is something the U.S. has never - at the least the Bush administration never wanted to do it, put U.S. ideas on the table. But this administration may be encouraged to do that.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, David. Let's go next to - this is Yvette(ph), Yvette with us from Palo Alto.

YVETTE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.

YVETTE: Oh, hi. I had a question. I was wondering why Syria wasn't involved in the peace talks? I know that they have a real strong stand about, you know, two of the big player, very important player, and why weren't they involved?

CONAN: Syria...

YVETTE: (Unintelligible)

CONAN: ...there's still, of course, a dispute about the occupied Golan Heights. And there have been...

YVETTE: Yeah. There - that - there is wrong about that, not to...

CONAN: Excuse me. Yes. I understand, but hold on just a second. And of course, there have been indirect talks in the past, using Turkey's good offices, between Israel and Syria. That seems to have come apart in recent months?

KELEMEN: Those talks broke down when the Israelis moved in to Gaza. And the U.S. has tried to restart this in a way. I mean, George Mitchell has talked about the Syrian track as being important, the Lebanon track as being important, all of this. The reason, as I understand it, that you have only the Egyptians and the Jordanians here is they're representing the Arab League, but they are the only two countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel. And so they're the ones representing them now, and there's a lot of talk that the U.S. really has to reach out more to Syria, to Saudi Arabia, to others, to give Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas the kind of political cover that he's going to need to make a deal.

CONAN: We've talked about the stakes for the Palestinian authority, for Israel as well. What about the stakes for President Obama?

KELEMEN: Well, it's funny because one person was joking that at least the parties won't look at him and say, oh, he's only out for it for a Nobel Peace Prize - he already has his Nobel Peace Prize. He does - has indicated that he has a personal commitment to this. He's also said that this is - that U.S. national security interests are at stake. So he's raised this issue to a point where I think most people believe it is already, but he said of this, in public, in such a public way, that he's got to pursue this peace process. And he's promised it from day one, and it's taken 20 months for them just to get to this point, which is just the beginning.

CONAN: Michele Kelemen, we'll follow with interest when the events begin to unfold here in Washington, D.C., tomorrow. Thanks very much for your time today.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR diplomacy correspondent Michele Kelemen. She'll have a report on the day's events at the State Department tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. She was with us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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