- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Peace is at hand; just wait a year. This week, direct talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are scheduled to kick off after months of indirect “proximity” talks brokered by the United States.

President Obama is taking a high-profile role, seeking to justify his paid-in-advance Nobel Peace Prize. Exactly what he will bring to the process is unclear. “The president’s engagement and involvement in the future in these talks will be determined by developments as we move forward,” according to John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism muse. This places Mr. Obama in a position where if things are working out, he can step in to take credit - and if not, he can rise above the process and call for mutual understanding, letting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton take the blame.

Establishing a yearlong timeline is a serious misstep, akin to declaring the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be closed in a year (it wasn’t), the claim that the stimulus package would cap unemployment at 8 percent (it didn’t), and the promised July 2011 date to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, which no one understands. The Obama administration has yet to realize that hard metrics are not their friends; meeting a deadline may bring some fleeting praise, but missing one creates a durable measure of failure.

The odds are slim that a year of talks will produce anything more than a pro-forma agreement on minor issues. The best guess is that the United States will push a “framework” document similar to the 1993 Oslo accords that failed spectacularly. Any such agreement would have to come to grips with irreconcilable differences over critical issues. Mr. Netanyahu has been in this situation before and lost power in 1999 in part because of conservative objections to the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, which he negotiated. He is unlikely to make that mistake again.

While Israel says there are no preconditions to negotiations, there are some issues on which they will not compromise: Jerusalem - all of it - will remain the capital of the Jewish state; the Palestinians will not be granted a land corridor to the Gaza strip; and Israel will insist that the Palestinian Authority not be allowed to have independent national security arrangements with other countries, such as Iran, and become another failed “land for peace” experiment like Gaza was. If Mr. Abbas can agree to those terms, maybe Israel will give up a settlement or two.

Those opposed to the process will do their best to break it up, or to give excuses to the participants to suspend or withdraw from the talks. Hezbollah or Hamas can attempt to foment crises by launching attacks. Palestinians seeking a way out could point to statements by ultra-Orthodox Israelis, such as the recent controversy over Rabbi Ovadia Yosef saying that Mr. Abbas and others should “disappear from the Earth.”

America has the weakest hand. The main sources of leverage are U.S. aid dollars, but Mr. Obama gains nothing from pressuring Israel, unless he wants to alienate more American Jewish voters, and he would never cut aid to the economically stricken Palestinians. There are few new peace approaches being discussed, and the ground has been trod so often, there is little U.S. diplomats can bring to the process other than a deadline that all sides can ignore.

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