Mideast Talks Wrap With A Promise

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Israeli and Palestinian negotiators finished up talks on Thursday, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to keep talking. Host Scott Simon talks with the Institute for Middle East Peace's Stephen P. Cohen about whether this really signals progress.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators wrapped up talks on Thursday, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to keep talking. Now, that sounds like progress, since the talks have been stalled for two years. (Unintelligible) two weeks in the Middle East.

Stephen P. Cohen joins us. He's the founder and president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development. He meets regularly with American and Middle East officials. He joins us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York. Mr. Cohen, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STEPHEN COHEN (Institute for Middle East Peace and Development): Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: Before the talks started this week, you wrote an op-ed piece in the Huffington Post where you offered some advice for the participants and essentially said don't look back.

Mr. COHEN: Yes. I said they should not simply rehearse the failures of the past, because that will set the wrong atmosphere and the wrong feeling tone for what they're going to be doing; that what they need to do is to set their minds on the next thing they need to agree upon. And if they could do that, they'll create a sense of hope, both for the leaders themselves and for their negotiators, who will see that their leaders are serious about these talks because they have tried already to wrestle with something that has yet to be resolved.

SIMON: If you were to give advice to the president of the United States, what does President Obama do other than put both sides in the same room?

Mr. COHEN: It's not enough to put them in the same room. You have to put before them in the same room the same challenge to say something new about one of the critical issues. I wish that the president at the dinner that he had with the two leaders and with President Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan would have pushed them to answer one of these questions, at least in a preliminary way, in order to produce from them their first ideas about how to solve one of the problems that they have left unresolved from all the other negotiations.

SIMON: To your mind, Mr. Cohen, what's the next thing on the horizon that negotiators could agree on, no matter how big or small?

Mr. COHEN: I think that what they have to do now is to decide that they understand that security is the most important issue for Israel. But also it's a critical issue for the Palestinians. When you talk security, you're talking about something that the Israelis want. And when you talk a political agreement, you talk about what the Palestinians want.

And I think that that's a half-truth. Because both sides need a political agreement and want one, and both sides need security. And when they start to do that, they will understand that they cannot define security without defining permanent borders between them.

SIMON: That's what sort of intrigues me when you talk about beginning to get into the border issues immediately, because for years, as I don't have to tell you, it has been the tactic of negotiators to say essentially we'll never agree on that. Once you start drawing a line through the map, Palestinians get upset if this block isn't included in East Jerusalem or Israelis get upset if that block is included in East Jerusalem.

And the whole idea was to take these smaller steps - I think they were called confidence-building measures. Now, are you saying the confidence exists are that we've been fooling ourselves to not begin with the hard part?

Mr. COHEN: I think that there is no way to build confidence between these peoples unless they see there is a willingness to address their fundamental disagreements. Because it's around those fundamental issues that their distrust of each other and suspicion of each other has grown up in these hundred years of their conflict.

HANSEN: Stephen P. Cohen, founder and president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you very much for having me.

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