Déjà-vu all over again: Middle East talks restart amidst low expectations

Déjà-vu all over again is an old John Prescott joke, but it seemed like an appropriate headline for my latest article for Progress about the Middle East, as the Israeli and Palestinian delegations sit down to dinner this evening in the ornate splendour of the eighth floor of the State Department.

Defying high expectations to provide Palestinians with the dignity of statehood, or Israelis with security and safety, is not going to be a challenge facing this latest diplomatic effort. Indeed, simply keeping the parties talking for longer than the short few weeks that the last abortive attempt managed in September 2010 will be seen by some as success. And that was before the tumult of the Arab Spring, including the chaos in Egypt and carnage in Syria. For US secretary of state John Kerry, success will mean resolving the core paradox between the negotiating room and the facts on the ground, keeping the process secret, and managing to keep the parties talking when the inevitable bumps in the road occur.

Secretary Kerry cannot be faulted for the personal vigour with which he has pursued this issue since taking office in January, working closely with Tony Blair. From Washington to Rome to Jerusalem, the two have repeatedly debated, discussed and decided how the old challenge of matching the aspirations of the negotiating room with the reality on the ground can be matched.

So what reason is there to believe this time may be different? The millions of Israelis and Palestinians, who would be the principal beneficiaries of any deal and who remain committed to a two-state solution but have lost faith in their political leaders, will not be sitting by the television waiting for a breaking news whoosh to indicate a deal.

That is no bad thing. Low-key talks, with the different parties not testing their ideas in the media, may well frustrate the media and those from the international community not in the room, but could probably be the best way to ensure the full potential of two viable states is realised.

Today’s meeting is therefore a welcome start. Only when we see the talks happening at a leadership level between prime minister Netanyahu and President Abbas should we start to think this isn’t just another episode in a long-running serial with a plot we’re all too familiar with. But in the meantime we should neither allow the cynicism of past failed attempts nor the weight of expectation to derail what will always be a very delicate starting point.

You can read the full article for Progress here


Let’s talk: making peace in the Middle East

Visitors to the West Wing are greeted by a series of ‘jumbos’ – giant photos of Barack Obama’s latest events and visits, carefully selected to show the power and personality of the US president.

There’s no doubting that his first trip to the Middle East in office – which concluded in the stunning surroundings of Petra at the weekend – will have generated some amazing images. But it will take some time to see if any results develop.

As someone who spent nearly five years travelling to the region, working for Tony Blair in his role as Quartet representative, it was fascinating to watch the statecraft before, during and after the visit.

But behind all the bonhomie for the cameras with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the US president still managed to deliver a very sharp message about the importance of getting moving with the Middle East peace process.

In his keynote speech to ‘the people of Israel’ – going for the Clinton–Blair tactic of reaching over the head of the deadlocked politicians to a wider audience – he combined a strong endorsement of Zionism with a powerful call for the justice and dignity of Palestinian statehood.

But what now? For too long both the Palestinian and Israeli politicians have been stuck in a narrative of: ‘I’m serious about peace, it’s just the other side isn’t.’

The fact is that there will only be a deal when the parties themselves want one, or feel enough heat from their people to achieve one. But that doesn’t mean simply crossing our fingers leaving them to it. Otherwise they would have got a deal already.

All analogies are flawed, but, as we saw in Northern Ireland, it requires intensive work, patience, creativity, time and ingenuity. If Obama’s trip is to bear fruit, the heavy-lifting will fall to someone who was a close student of that process, US secretary of state John Kerry, as well as one of its key participants, Tony Blair.

Now is the time to get negotiations started again and ensure we can take some new photos of Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in security and peace, because, in the words of Obama, ‘the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine.’

You can read the full article for Progress here