JESSICA BADER: When the latest phase of the Middle East peace process (direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority) kicked off last week, the default reaction seemed to be one of hoping something good would result but doubting that it would. The failures and obstacles of previous iterations of the peace process were referred to over and over, and the assumption that this round of talks was doomed to a similar fate pervaded. Yet I couldn’t help but see things a little bit differently. When I looked at the peace process, I saw…health care reform?
While looking at domestic and foreign policy challenges through the same framework can be a bit jarring, I think there are some key similarities in the structure of the healthcare reform endgame and the latest round of peace talks. The outlines of what is to be done (a regulate-mandate-subsidize approach to the health insurance industry; a two-state solution in the Middle East) are understood and accepted by the key decision-makers (Congressional Democrats; Netanyahu and Abbas), but there are well-known tensions around certain contentious issues (abortion; settlement construction). The key is getting the interested parties to the table to hammer out an agreement on the so-called “final staus issues” and keeping the pressure on them to stick with it and not let the momentary blips and inflammatory statements bring the whole thing down.
Health care reform’s obituary was written seemingly every time any setback or instance of two people talking past one another was the story of the day. Yet in the end it passed because enough members of the group with the power to do something decided that the status quo was unacceptable and the proposed bill would make a difference. I think the same will be true of the peace process – the leaders with the power to do something have all accepted the concept of two states living side-by-side, and the hardest step may have been getting them to the negotiating table. The upcoming expiration of the settlement freeze could be problematic, but getting to work despite a Hamas attack shortly before the start of talks (exactly the sort of thing that could have been used as an excuse to scrap the whole process if both sides were less committed) is an extremely encouraging sign. Politics is the art of the possible, and we’ve already seen this year that wide-ranging agreement on thorny issues is possible when the stakeholders know and accept the basic outline of that agreement and the pressure is kept on them.
JEREMY FUGLEBERG: The talks are doomed. Or are they?
Palestinian Authority Pres. Mahmoud Abbas has nearly nothing to lose, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ego might be willing to buck his coalition if he gets a substantial concessions, and Pres. Obama’s team is smart enough to be readying a “second way” for the inevitable moment when talks reach an impasse. It is that bridging proposal that will make or break these talks.
That being said, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable. Neither side really wants a deal. The international pressure for successful talks is weak. And frankly, nobody has clearly define what would make the talks successful. Obama and Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of State, say the talks are about “final status” negotiations, but recently Abbas said he’s ready to bolt if anyone presses him about some of the basic elements of a final status negotiation, including borders, return of Palestinian refugees and other issues.
Surprisingly, the Israeli side may be they key to a successful set of talks. Netanyahu likes himself a lot. That ego, so often a road block to negotiations in the past, may be just the think to carry the Israelis over the bridge of an Obama proposal.
But don’t hold your breath.