Proximity Talks Begin

May 12, 2010 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

May 12, 2010
Number 05/10 #03

As readers are probably aware, and as expected for a number of weeks, it was announced on Monday that US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks are now beginning. While it is not clear yet how significant the actual difference is between the previous situation – where US envoy George Mitchell shuttled between the two sides to talk about talks – and the new situation – where Mitchell will shuttle between the two sides to discuss more substantive proposals hopefully leading to direct talks – this Update looks at the background and prospects of the new, long-awaited reality.

First up is some good general analysis and background on the proximity talks from David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Makovksy notes that there are a number of novel and troubling features of the current situation – including an effective Arab League veto of future talks, a time limit which may offer an incentive to stall the negotiations, and a propensity among some in the US Administration to seek to impose the parameters of a resolution. This last, he argues, would not only be unlikely to move matters forward, but might well block options for future progress. For Makovsky’s complete look at the parameters and environment of the proximity talks, CLICK HERE. Another good general backgrounder on proximity talks comes from veteran Israeli journalist Leslie Susser, who also reports that Israel has proposed to the Palestinians temporary statehood in 60% of the West Bank while talks on final statehood continue.

Next up is Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz who argues that the proximity talks have one positive factor favouring them – expectations about them are so low that virtually any achievement will be seen as a success. He notes that the two sides are entering the proximity talks with conflicting goals and expectations – with the Palestinians looking for core issue concessions from Israel, while the Israelis insist nothing can be finalised until direct talks resume. Horovitz also looks at the widely held belief that “both sides know full well the contours of a final Israeli-Palestinian deal,” arguing that, once you start talking about the details and the current situation on the ground, things are far from this simple. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE. Some further examples of pessimism among Israeli pundits about the talks’ prospects are here, here, here and here.

Finally, we offer readers a rather different and insightful look at the logic and assumptions of the US approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. It comes from Eric K. Clemons and Elizabeth T. Gray Jr, who are academic experts on modelling complex systems and negotiations, and they look in detail at the causal assumptions that logically underlie recent American Middle East efforts, and find some potential problems with them. They go on to offer some concrete suggestions for US President Obama for dealing with the genuine complexities of the Middle East situation. For this important and though-provoking re-evaluation of the the basic logic of Middle East peace strategies, CLICK HERE. Some additional critical evaluations of the Obama Administration’s recent Middle East efforts come from Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post and John Podhoretz of Commentary, while Lee Smith takes on Arab and Administration claims that the Arab-Israel conflict is at the centre of Middle East problems.

Readers may also be interested in:

Proximity Talks: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By David Makovsky

PolicyWatch #1654,
May 5, 2010

U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace George Mitchell is currently in Jerusalem amid wide expectation that on Saturday the Palestinians will approve proximity talks with Israel. For its part, Israel has already agreed to the talks.

Following a phone conversation this past Monday between President Obama and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the White House said it had urged proximity talks with the Palestinians as a means of transitioning to direct talks as quickly as possible. Indirect talks are a departure from the more direct format that has defined Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since the landmark Madrid peace conference in 1991. As late as 2009, during the final months of the Olmert government, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were meeting directly almost every week. But in 2010, it appears that George Mitchell will be shuttling between Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem and President Mahmoud Abbas’s office in Ramallah.

Although Israel has been willing to hold direct talks for months, Abbas has convinced himself and others that face-to-face meetings would leave him politically exposed if they do not prove to be serious. But while expectations on all sides are modest, the proximity approach has emerged because alternative proposals — such as a statement of U.S. principles — seem even more problematic and fraught with risk.

Talks Held Hostage by Arab League?

Just as proximity talks seem like a step backward, the idea of seeking Arab consent for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is antithetical to the legacy of modern Palestinian nationalism. Although Yasser Arafat remains a deeply controversial historical figure, he was able to extricate Palestinian politics from the vicissitudes of inter-Arab dynamics after 1974, when the Arab League transferred the Palestinian issue to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Today, however, Arab states are once again being asked to approve Israeli-Palestinian talks.

This situation stems from an incident in fall 2009, when Arab leaders privately told Abbas that they would shelve a UN report on the Gaza war. They reneged on their commitment, however, citing concerns about negative publicity in the Arab media. Abbas was deeply offended and is now insisting the Arab states sign on to proximity talks so that he does not feel politically exposed again.

Although there are advantages to providing Arab cover for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, formalizing the move is bound to create negative precedents. For example, if such negotiations require an Arab-approved extension in the future, countries such as Libya or Syria could decide to oppose it for extraneous reasons. In other words, peace talks could be held hostage by the lowest common denominator.

Time Factors

Currently, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have decided to limit their participation in the proximity talks to four months. To be sure, the Palestinians favor proximity talks because the format maximizes the U.S. role, which they believe will benefit their interests. But they also seem eager to avoid indefinite talks. Meanwhile, the Israelis prefer a time limit because they do not want to supplant direct negotiations down the road, fearing that vibrant proximity talks will make face-to-face talks superfluous. Although Israel has accepted the proximity format, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has said that progress is more likely when the two sides sit together.

For the United States, proximity talks provide flexibility and avoid the diplomatic deadlock that can quickly emerge from direct talks. Each side can prioritize its issues and sidestep the burden of agreeing on a mutual agenda. The Palestinians can begin with land, and Israel can begin with security. Yet, despite the pressing timeline, Washington has yet to work out many of the details surrounding the conduct of the proximity meetings, such as their format and frequency.

The Obama administration likely views proximity talks as a means of probing the parties and identifying possible convergences. In that regard it is interesting to speculate whether Mitchell’s effort sets in motion a back channel for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. For Mitchell, who assumed his post on the administration’s second day in office, the proximity discussions will be his first opportunity to formally engage the parties on the core issues of borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. Until now, his focus has been on settlements and other confidence-building issues, in addition to getting proximity talks started.

Some have speculated that the Palestinians may lack incentive for progress during proximity talks because they believe the United States will proffer a full peace plan or statement of principles if the talks fail. Therefore, in addition to the four-month limit, Washington should remind Abbas that another deadline is looming in September: Israel’s settlement moratorium. Given that the Palestinians have made this such an important issue, Mitchell could use it as an incentive, prodding them to move forward before the moratorium expires.

Proximity Talks and the Obama Administration Policy Debate

The focus on proximity talks constitutes a short-term victory for those in the Obama administration who favor negotiations over those who believe the president should put forward his own views on the core issues. The latter school believes that any set of “Obama Principles” would not be sharply different from the “Clinton Parameters” of December 2000. In their view, the proposed negotiations will achieve little, and a new-but-familiar set of formal U.S. principles would constitute a default policy option during the subsequent vacuum.

But Israel believes that any statement of U.S. principles would make negotiations more unlikely, given that Palestinians prefer U.S. proposals to those offered by the Netanyahu government. Mitchell reportedly opposes a statement of principles for similar reasons, fearing that it would bring his peace talks to a halt. According to this view, presenting American ideas can be a useful diplomatic tool, but only at the proper time and under the appropriate circumstances. The mere articulation of U.S. policy does not advance U.S. interests, especially if that policy is not implemented. Such an approach risks demonstrating U.S. weakness rather than U.S. strength, with regional ramifications for America and its allies.

Offering a set of “Obama Principles” could be useful only if there is broad buy-in from the Israelis, Palestinians, and key Arab states, and only if serious negotiations have gone as far as they can. In that case, U.S. principles could help bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion by acting as a bridging proposal. But such an exercise makes sense only after Washington has gained as precise a read as possible regarding what might work and what is required to fill the gaps. In contrast, drafting principles now would not reflect the state of negotiations and could alienate parties the United States hopes to recruit.

More specifically, advocating this idea before it is fully examined may narrow U.S. options rather than broaden them. Introducing “Obama Principles” would be akin to using our last bullet — after the president has stated his case, there is nowhere else to go. As for regional repercussions, presenting U.S. principles in the current environment — without creating the conditions in which they would be welcomed, and without a diplomatic strategy for dealing with the potential consequences of such a move — risks doing more harm than good.

Of course, it is clear that if the parties and Arab states would actually sign off on explicit compromises before such principles are announced, this would stir more of a debate than anything Washington could do. Such compromises would require more effort than the current Arab Peace Initiative, and therefore one has to be skeptical that they will occur at this time.

That is, in the absence of preparation and coordination, Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab leaders would no doubt focus on the concessions involved in endorsing U.S. principles rather than the potential gains, with each comparing the principles to positions they have already publicly advocated or accepted. In other words, rather than accept principles that require them to step away from their own declared positions without a clear dividend in return, they would likely accede to political considerations and stand up to Washington in the name of their national interests.

The yardstick by which to measure any statement of U.S. principles is whether they can succeed, and as a bridging proposal when the parties are moving close to each other, success is possible. But in any other context they are more likely to fail. It is this recognition that is driving Washington’s belief that for all its imperfections, the proximity approach is now preferable to riskier options.

David Makovsky is the Washington Institute’s Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

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Analysis: Proximity’s silver lining?


Jerusalem Post, 04/05/2010    

Any success would truly be a surprise.
The cliché has it that “both sides know full well the contours of a final Israeli-Palestinian deal.”

Essentially, according to such conventional wisdom, the key elements could be summed up on the back of an envelope: Israel has gone from Gaza. It will have to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank, too. Any territory that is maintained, to encompass major settlement blocs, will have to be traded for equivalent territory from within Israel’s current sovereign borders.

Jewish Jerusalem neighborhoods will remain under Israeli control. Arab Jerusalem neighborhoods will come under Palestinian control. A separate, delicate arrangement will be agreed upon for the Temple Mount and possibly the wider Old City area.

And the Palestinians will abandon the practical implementation of the “right of return,” so that there is no significant influx of refugees and their descendants to Israel.

Except that, even when listed as superficially as that, it is immediately clear that the cliché and the conventional wisdom are mistaken. It’s really not that simple at all.

Relatively moderate Palestinians do not control Gaza; emphatically extremist Hamas does.

The Netanyahu government, most of whose influential members are deeply committed to the settlement enterprise, does not want to withdraw from most of the West Bank. It has major security concerns, too, and wants to ensure no influx of missiles – in part, via a long-term presence in the Jordan Valley. In any case, when the Olmert government proposed a near-full withdrawal, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rebuffed the offer.

Even president Bill Clinton, knowledgeable, committed and widely trusted by both sides, proved unable to foster a workable arrangement for Jerusalem 10 years ago; the Obama administration has no comparable record of commitment, and enjoys no remotely comparable level of trust.

And while the US believes Abbas is ready for a deal on the refugees, the Netanyahu government largely doubts this.

Given the bitter 16-year record of failed direct negotiations, it is hard to imagine former senator George Mitchell – no matter how indefatigable he may be, and no matter how impressive his Northern Ireland peacemaking credentials – wresting dramatic achievements from an indirect track that will see him and his team shuttling back and forth along the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah.

Worse, it is painfully clear that the two sides themselves are entering “proximity” talks with conflicting goals and expectations.

The Palestinians hope to gain American and possibly Israeli concessions on core issues over the next four months, and have bitterly resisted any resumption of direct negotiations. Israel has only grudgingly agreed to even raise final-status issues in the proximity talks, wants direct negotiations as soon as possible and says nothing can be finalized in the indirect track.

The very fact that the two sides are finally about to start talking again might reasonably be considered a positive development, especially if the uninspiring framework nonetheless yields a gradual reestablishment of mutual confidence and thus paves the way for genuine progress.

But recent history has also shown that when talks break down, violence can swiftly follow. Thus, negotiations themselves are not necessarily a good thing; if they fall apart in acrimony, as they so often do, they can cause terrible damage.

The collapse of Camp David in 2000, for instance, when Yasser Arafat chose to shatter the high expectations of many Israelis and Palestinians, and opted not to legitimize Israel, was followed by his fostering of the second intifada’s terror war.

The silver lining this time may be that no one, on either side, is entering these proximity talks with high expectations. Quite the contrary. Failure is all but assumed.

And that means even the smallest success would truly be a pleasant surprise.

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Obama and the Middle East: Complex Systems, Poorly Planned Interventions, and The Law of Unintended Consequences

Eric K. Clemons and Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.

Huffington Post,
Posted: April 21, 2010 02:12 PM

We all know about incentives: Reward behavior that you want to promote and to encourage. However, organizational behavior theorists also offer examples of the Fallacy of rewarding A to encourage B. You know, you want teamwork and cooperation but you reward only individual performance, or you want to encourage customer satisfaction but you reward only sales. But this past week President Obama provided our first exposure to punishing A to encourage D. Bear with us for a short motivational detour about families and behavior; this is really about Israel, Jerusalem, North Waziristan, and a number of places in between.

Punishing A to encourage D? Imagine my son is downloading pirated Tarentino films (A), and it’s raining outside (B). His downloading the Tarentino film really bothers me — first it’s illegal, and second, I’m not sure I want him watching stuff where phrases like “I’m a get Medieval on yo ass” will be made all too graphically clear. I want him to go outside and play (C) so that he will have more friends (D).

Right now I have A and B, and I don’t want either of them. So I exercise parental controls on his laptop so he can’t access the website he wants, which I hope means he’ll go out and play, and thus have more friends. Except that it’s still raining, and even when it stops raining he would rather stay in and watch Kill Bill on his laptop, which he downloaded weeks ago. And even when he does go outside, he takes solitary walks, hangs out in the Arms and Armor collection at the Met, or goes to visit his grandmother. No surprise: my intervention doesn’t work — the links from A to B to C to D are all too tenuous. This example is pretty obvious. And no one would assume that blocking a kid’s access to a website would make it stop raining, or that sending him outside would make him popular. “Where are the causal mechanisms?”, as we scientists like to say.

But you’re not interested in my son. How about this instead: President Obama has to deal with the fact that the Israelis intend to build a housing project in a disputed part of East Jerusalem (A) and also with the fact of Arab intransigence in moving toward a two state solution to the Palestinian Problem (B). He faces intense resentment in the Islamic world, resentment toward the U. S. and European powers, and towards the non-Islamic world more generally, which has been building for decades or centuries, depending on how you count. He wants this resentment to diminish, or even vanish. Let’s call this (C). And his real problem, of course, is the complex combination of wars and counter-insurgency operations that America faces in Iraq and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He believes that reducing Islamic resentment will reduce the opposition that the American military faces in Iraq and Afghanistan saving American “blood and treasure” (D).

Okay. This is more interesting than a Tarentino-addicted son. President Obama clearly believes that there is a linkage from A to D, and that achieving a settlement to the Palestinian Problem has become a “vital national security interest of the United States”, but can action on A even get us to B? Just as blocking my son’s website access doesn’t stop the rain, one can wonder why stopping a housing project in East Jerusalem should end Arab intransigence on a two-state solution to Palestinian demands for statehood?

What if the core bases of Palestinian resistance are inherently rational? Maybe the Palestinians feel they can wait long enough to ensure that any single-state solution to the Palestinian Problem would result in an Arab majority. Could the Palestinians and their supporters take actions that within two or three decades force Israel to become either a Muslim-majority democracy or a Jewish apartheid state? The former would be the end of Israel as a Jewish homeland, while the second would result in Israel becoming an international pariah state and would be unsustainable. Either way, the Palestinians are better off waiting than making serious concessions now. There is no reason to assume the Palestinian negotiators are unaware of this scenario; indeed, if they were previously unaware, they would simply need to pick up a recent copy of Foreign Affairs to have it explained to them. So, stopping A may not stop B.

But let’s move on with our analysis of Obama’s reasoning: why would stopping B have any effect on C? The creation, and continued existence, of Israel is only one item on a long list of Islamic grievances. Egypt remembers Napoleon and the venal British occupation. Syria remembers its dismemberment by the League of Nations. Iran remembers the British manipulation of its oil revenues, the overthrow of Mossadegh, and U. S. support for the Shah. Afghanistan remembers the nineteenth century “Afghan Wars” and Pakistan remembers Partition. Osama bin Laden’s grievances go well beyond the existence of the State of Israel and include the expulsion of the Moors from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella in the 1400s and The Crusades four hundred years earlier. A solution to the Palestinian Problem will not end militant incursions into “Indian Occupied” Kashmir, bombing in Mumbai or in Bali, unrest among the Uighurs, or the standoff in Darfur (C).

So if punishing settlement-building (A) won’t end Palestinian intransigence (B), and ending B won’t end Islamic anger (C), how does this get us to the final objectives of ending the snarl of conflicts between the Tigris and the Indus (D), or of successfully working with the Taliban in North Waziristan or Afghanistan? It doesn’t. Achieving D will require thoughtful, astute, patient efforts by many players inside and outside the region over a long period of time.

Still, solving any part of this conundrum is a good thing. Is punishing A to get at least B worth a try? Might stopping settlements in Jerusalem, with luck, at least get us to Palestinian statehood and an end to the Palestinian Problem?

We’re not sure. The study of systems sciences suggests that changing one part of a complex system can have unanticipated effects. Let’s assume that we do publicly rebuke and punish the Israelis, and look at two possible outcomes:

  • What if the Israeli Government felt truly abandoned by the United States and no longer felt that it could count on its protection? What if therefore it felt that American public opinion was no longer a restraint on Israeli policy? What actions might the IDF take as a result, especially if it felt its position would only weaken over time, or if it felt truly threatened by the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb, and did not feel it could count on American support?
  • What if the Palestinians felt that the Israeli Government no longer had the firm support of the United States? What if they felt that Israel would consequently become weaker and weaker over time? Why would the Palestinians become more flexible as a result? Wouldn’t it be rational for them to become more intransigent, realizing that time and demographics were both on their side? Why would the situation become calmer while the Palestinians waited, and what might Fatah or Hamas, or Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, decide to do?

Mr. Obama is our president, and we wish him well. We live in a dangerous world, and anything he can do to make it safer for us, for the Middle East, for our armed forces, and for everyone else, would be a good thing. Mr. Obama has made great strides over his predecessor and is attempting to solve the problems of the Middle East systemically and systematically, not merely one piece at a time. However, he has not yet mastered the matrix of interactions that tie causes to diverse effects in this complex system. We simply wish that the Harvard Law School curriculum included more courses in logic and military history.

But what, then, should President Obama do?

  • Avoid proposing simple solutions to complex problems. Look for causal linkages, not just proximity. Stopping movie downloads won’t stop the rain, and stopping the construction of new settlements won’t end centuries of misunderstanding and grievances.
  • Work with these linkages and with the situation as it is, not as he would want it to be. For example, if the Palestinians think they can get all of Palestine just by waiting, President Obama needs to create a better option, either by making it clear that they cannot just wait, or by offering them something they cannot get just by waiting.
  • Understand the complexity of the problem as it is. Making a problem undiscussable does not make the problem go away. President Obama seems to believe that use of phrases like “radical Islam” suggests Americans view Islamic states as terrorists and that the phrase should be banished; actually, this phrase suggests that the United States does make important distinctions between violent terrorists and others who disagree with us strongly but express this through different means. But denying the existence of radicals does not make them or their grievances go away. As long as the Islamic world feels it has real grievances, then palliatives, as expensive as they may be for the Israelis, are not a real solution. And as long as there are Islamic radicals there will be threats to the West, some of them quite severe. While some of these grievances and the problems they create may require real concessions from the West, others may require a truly forceful, even violent military response instead.
  • Above all, President Obama should do no harm. Although this is a Medical School takeaway, not a law school one, it is worth mentioning in conclusion. The law of unintended consequences suggests that any time anyone adjusts a complex system, the results may be surprising. In this instance, we suspect that President Obama and the rest of the world would find the results of this stare-down with Israel disappointing as well.

Eric Clemons is Professor at Wharton and an expert in modeling the behavior of complex and unpredictable system. Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. is an expert on complex negotiations and a translator of Persian texts.

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