U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell will finally be able to celebrate his first victory after nearly a year without progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Mr. Mitchell has convinced the Israelis and Palestinians to enter into indirect low-level negotiations, the first peace talks since direct talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were scuttled during the Gaza War of December 2008. George Mitchell, who first proposed the idea of indirect talks during a visit to the region two weeks ago, will mediate the talks between delegations led by Saeb Erekat on the Palestinian side and Yitzhak Molcho on the Israeli side. The talks are scheduled to begin February 20, according to Palestinian sources, and are intended to map out the positions of both parties and set an agenda for higher level, direct talks. The Israelis and Palestinians disagree on how long the indirect talks should last, however, with Netanyahu advocating for 3-4 weeks of indirect talks following by direct negotiations and the Palestinians seeking to limit shuttle diplomacy to 3-4 months.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki insists that the indirect talks should first discuss the issue of the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state before progressing onto the issues of water, security, and Jerusalem.
Indirect talks may be exactly what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calls for at the moment, as they provide both sides with opportunities to mitigate domestic political risks while providing a venue for engagement on issues related to the peace process. Mitchell, who will be mediating the negotiations, has a great deal of experience with this kind of shuttle diplomacy in Northern Ireland, where he worked tirelessly to bring about a peace agreement. This arrangement also allows Netanyahu to deflect some of the criticism that has come to Israel from the Gaza War and the subsequent Goldstone report. Netanyahu gets to brandish his image as a peacemaker willing to make the hard decisions necessary for peace and Abbas is able to do the same. Moreoever, indirect talks allow Abbas to comply with European and American desires and pressure to see the peace process restarted without opening himself up to sharp criticism for backing down on his demand for a three-month complete settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. While I am not so naive as to suggest that the announcement of indirect talks between the parties will inevitably yield a sequence of events that eventually brings about a just solution to the conflict, there is reason to be hopeful that this will allow Netanyahu, Abbas, and Mitchell to understand more concretely the stances and red lines of the parties involved.
To be sure, both the Israelis and Palestinians are right now mapping out ways to end the talks and cast blame on the other. However, this will be George Mitchell's moment in the spotlight. He now has the opportunity to let his negotiating skills shine by keeping both parties focused, minimizing the ability of one side or the other to back out prematurely, and reiterating the world's desire for a peaceful solution to this conflict. A great challenge is ahead for the old sage, but this is the eve of the Winter Olympics - and as the gold medal champion U.S. Olympic Hockey Coach Herb Brooks said, "Great moments are born from great opportunity."
Yoel Marcus, writing in Haaretz, says if Netanyahu really wants peace he'll have to lose his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, kick Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu out of his coalition, and invite Kadima to join him. That position sounds rational to me.