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Prospects for the peace talks – Henry Siegman

Henry Siegman, 26 August 2010

Henry Siegman is president of the US/Middle East Project (USMEP), an independent policy institute. He is also a research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Programme of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Mr. Siegman has published extensively on the Middle East peace process and has been consulted by governments, international agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Major studies directed by Mr. Siegman for the Council on Foreign Relations include Harnessing trade for development and growth in the Middle East (2002), and Strengthening Palestinian public institutions (1999), conducted on behalf of the European Commission and the government of Norway. In 2002, he directed a study commissioned by the US Department of State and the US National Intelligence Council on the implications of “viability” for Palestinian statehood.


Failed bilateral talks over these past 16 years have shown that a Middle East peace accord can never be reached by the parties themselves. Israeli governments believe they can defy international condemnation of their illegal colonial project in the West Bank because they can count on the US to oppose international sanctions.

Bilateral talks that are not framed by US-formulated parameters (based on Security Council resolutions, the Oslo accords, the Arab Peace Initiative, the “road map” and other previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements) cannot succeed.

Israel’s government believes that the US Congress will not permit an American president to issue such parameters and demand their acceptance. What hope there is for the bilateral talks that resume in Washington DC on September 2 depends entirely on President Obama proving that belief to be wrong, and on whether the “bridging proposals” he has promised, should the talks reach an impasse, are a euphemism for the submission of American parameters.

Such a US initiative must offer Israel iron-clad assurances for its security within its pre-1967 borders, but at the same time must make it clear these assurances are not available if Israel insists on denying Palestinians a viable and sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The other major obstacle to a permanent status agreement is the absence of an effective Palestinian interlocutor. Addressing Hamas’ legitimate grievances – and as noted in a recent Centcom report, it does have legitimate grievances – could lead to its return to a Palestinian coalition government that would provide Israel with a credible peace partner. If that outreach fails because of Hamas’ rejectionism, the organization’s ability to prevent a reasonable accord negotiated by other Palestinian political parties will have been significantly impeded.

If the Obama administration will not lead an international initiative to define the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and actively promote Palestinian political reconciliation, Europe must do so, and hope America will follow. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet that can guarantee the goal of “two states living side by side in peace and security.” But President Obama’s present course absolutely precludes it.

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