Reporters were scratching their heads Monday as they tried to break through non-answers and flowery talk about the trumpeted “direct talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The discussions apparently will last a total of a few hours in Washington next Thursday.
The United States has billed the talks as the beginning of a process that will end in an agreement on “final issues" such as the borders of a proposed new Arab state headed by the PA, the status of Jerusalem and Arab demands to allow several million Arabs from foreign countries to immigrate to Israel on the basis of ancestral residence in Israel.
A readout of the transcript of the daily State Department briefing reads like a wild goose chase as reporters tried to read through a smokescreen of diplomatic semantics that did not address their questions.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dramatically announced last Friday that the direct talks will take place—after weeks of "indirect talks” that never got off the ground. Instead of dealing with substantive issues, U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell shuttled back and forth between Israel and PA officials to try overcome the issue of the 10-month building freeze on Jewish buildings in Judea and Samaria.
PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has demanded the freeze be extended as a condition for direct talks, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has insisted that good faith would be shown by sitting down without ultimatums. Reporters discovered that the “direct talks” actually will focus on the same freeze issue that was an obstacle to indirect talks.
One reporter asked U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, "What specifically are you doing about this issue, which seems to be the prime issue for the Palestinians? This is the one [issue] that is going to break the negotiations down before anything else."
Crowley answered, "We’re very mindful of the importance the issue is within the negotiation. That’s why we want to get in the negotiation. None of these issues can be resolved outside of this negotiation."
But will the freeze be extended? Crowley hedged his bets and replied, “The direct negotiation begins on September 2, and you can rest assured that this will be among the topics discussed early on."
The frustrated reporter wondered how the talks will result in anything concrete. “You’ve had five – you’ve had a year and a half of absolutely nothing, or a year and three months of nothing, and then five – and then several months of indirect negotiations, during which presumably we all thought that this was the kind of issue that were going to be discussed. Now you’re saying that basically this is not – this hasn’t been discussed at all?”
However, Crowley would not be pinned down on what will happen if Israel does not agree to the PA demand. “We are very mindful of the Palestinian position and once we’re now into direct negotiations, we expect that both parties will do everything within their power to create an environment for those negotiations to continue constructively,” he stated.
"And what happens after September 2?” asked another reporter. “Right now, we’re just focused on the meetings on the 2nd of September,” Crowley explained. “I can’t rule out that they would continue, but I wouldn’t project that based on what we know now. Right now, we’re only projecting a one-day meeting.”
Virtually all foreign media, from China to the United States, have reported the direct talks as face-saving move for U.S. President Barack Obama. He plans to meet separately with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas next Wednesday before they sit down together the following day.
The president’s direct intervention makes it more likely “he going to be called upon sooner rather than later to earn his Nobel Peace Prize," Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six former secretaries of State, told USA Today.
David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the news magazine, "When they reach an impasse, and they will, the expectation will be that the president has to come in and fix these things," says Miller, now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Does he really understand what he's getting himself into?"