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Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star.
Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star.

Rami Khouri

Proximity talks are no mere gesture Add to ...

The American-Israeli-Palestinian/Arab agreement to launch "proximity talks" between Israelis and Palestinians this week has been widely dismissed as a gesture without much hope or substance. That may be too pessimistic and too early a conclusion. The talks, in which U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell will shuttle between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, may include some intriguing elements that are worth watching, especially vis-à-vis the United States and its views on a permanent peace settlement.

Here are my Top 10 Reasons Why We Should Not Dismiss The Proximity Talks So Quickly:

1. The talks reflect Barack Obama's administration's persistence in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, even after both Arabs and Israelis sharply rejected its initial foray into this treacherous terrain last year. Persistence in mediation is crucial for success. Washington seems to seriously believe that an Arab-Israeli peace agreement is in its own national interest.

2. Pragmatism and patience appear to have triumphed in the competition among the three schools of thought in Washington on how to proceed. An American ex-official and friend who worked in this arena for years described them to me recently as: the "Dennis Ross" approach that sees placating Israel as the most critical linchpin of American Mideast diplomacy; the "George Mitchell" approach that sees resumption of negotiations (even indirect proximity talks) as critical to creating a new dynamic; and the "Jim Jones" approach that sees America's national strategic interests requiring it to lay out its own ideas on how to achieve peace.

3. Mr. Mitchell is a realistic and experienced negotiator who has just scored a small success, but only when talks seriously get under way can he put all his skills to work. Significantly, he is mediating between high-level Israelis and Palestinians, including the respective top leaders. And Mr. Obama almost certainly will become more involved behind the scenes.

4. The launch of these talks shows how the United States can use its influence to move both sides when it puts its mind to it. In this case, the talks have started with Israel effectively freezing all its settlements without publicly declaring this, and the Palestinians have agreed to participate without Israel acceding to their demand that it formally announce a settlement freeze. Both sides are getting something important, and simultaneously giving something important to the other side. Chalk up another one for the George Mitchell school of diplomacy.

5. If the United States is ever going to use its muscle to push for a realistic and fair compromise agreement, it can only do so inside a negotiating process. There, it can do things that it would never be able to attempt in the public arena, where too many other constraints are at play.

6. The United States is the official instigator, mediator, cheerleader, hand-holder and back-rubber of the proximity talks, but also the record-keeper, archivist and note-taker. When either side now makes a move, takes a position, accepts or tables an offer, it will be recorded for posterity. Weasel-like leaders can no longer play games with what they accept or reject, and they must face both each other and their own people more honestly. All sides, mediator included, now must get down off the fence.

7. Only with proximity talks can the United States - if it wishes, and I believe it cannot avoid - start to offer bridging proposals that seek to bring the two sides closer together. Washington will never offer its own peace plan unilaterally in a speech or a television interview; it needs the context of an active negotiation to influence the parties by showing its hand, revealing its views on a permanent, comprehensive peace, and nudging both sides in that direction.

8. The proximity talks have a built-in clock, which the Arab world has set at four months. We don't know what happens if no progress is achieved after four months, but the official death of open-ended talks is a good step.

9. The resumption of formal, if indirect, negotiations provides a context in which the negotiators and the mediator can all work more maturely to harness regional and international support for the diplomatic process than presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush did in their failed attempts.

10. The talks provide a means for public opinion on both sides to coalesce around quality, courageous leadership, if such a thing exists in Israel and Palestine. Leaders can achieve a peace agreement only if they have majority support among their people. The resumption of official negotiations provides an opportunity for this to happen - if Arabs and Israelis respectively decide to replace mediocre leaders and failed policies with something more serious, dignified and effective.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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