Friday, May 21, 2010

The proximity talks - dead silence


by Neville Teller


"No reports of progress" is far from the same as "reports of no progress".  It's the former we are faced with as regards the proximity talks that apparently had their first round on Sunday 9 May, not the latter, 


It was ten days ago that the first round of the long-awaited proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority took place – or did they?  Security must have – for once – been totally watertight, for since then not a single newspaper, TV or radio station seems to have provided a report of what occurred.  We are in the dark about what issues were on the agenda, how the discussions fared, whether any sort of agreement was reached, and if so on what topics. 


Had anything in fact taken place on 9 May?  Not according to Reuters, who last Tuesday (18 May), reported that "the first substantive sessions" since the Palestinians agreed to the indirect "proximity" talks had just started.  On the other hand during his daily press briefing the day before (Monday 17 May), US State Department spokesman, Philip J Crowley, said: "both sides have agreed to begin to address core issues. I can't tell you where we are in that process. But in doing so … our objective … is to begin to make progress and, as rapidly as possible, move the parties into direct negotiations."  Which indicates that the process was already well advanced, though Crowley consistently sidestepped requests for clarification of any sort.


But dead silence certainly does not signify dead in the water.  If that had been the outcome, we should certainly have heard all about it, for rumour has it that the White House has a contingency plan up its sleeve, to be produced with a flourish if things go wrong – an international peace summit, to be held under the auspices of the Quartet. 


There are a few clues as to what might have been discussed.  Just prior to the start, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian's chief negotiator, said that at the start the focus would be on borders and security.  "But," he added, "this doesn't mean that we will neglect the other issues. Nothing will be agreed upon until we agree on everything."


He then provided his interviewer with a short, but not insignificant, addendum.  "These talks will be with the United States, instead of with Israel."


And, of course, in one sense he is not incorrect.  Both sides – the Israelis and the Palestinians – will indeed be talking not to each other, but to George Mitchell, President Obama's special Middle East envoy.  It may be that he will be invited, or may be able, to contribute a positive input in the discussions as they proceed, but it is surely disingenuous of Erekat to claim that the Palestinians will not be talking to the Israelis, for Mitchell's role is largely to act as an intermediary between the two parties.  Proposals tabled by one side will be conveyed to the other, and reactions and counter-proposals conveyed back.  The process may not be precisely two parties talking to each other, but they will certainly be conversing, even if at arms-length.


All those concerned agree that this preliminary phase of  proximity talks should be followed as soon as possible by direct face-to face discussions.  "As time goes by," Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister is reported as saying, "we cannot reach decisions and agreements on critical issues like security and our and their interests without sitting in one room.  Peace cannot be made from afar."


Washington, too, is pressing hard for the direct talks to start as soon as possible.  It is reported that President Obama phoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last Tuesday (18 May) , to reiterate that the two sides needed to "negotiate seriously and in good faith." 


In the statement issued by the White House following the call, the President is reported to have stressed that he intends to hold both sides accountable for "actions that undermine trust during the talks."  


It might almost be assumed that, among such actions, would be leaking accounts of what has taken place during the discussions, particularly if the leaks issue forth with a spin on them.  Perhaps all parties have adopted a self-denying ordinance as regards relations with the media, at least until there is something substantive to report.



Neville Teller

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