The face-saving process

As I noted last night, George Mitchell, President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, has wrapped up his latest diplomatic mission without getting the Palestinians to agree even to indirect peace talks with Israel. The problem for Mitchell is that the parties are at an impasse — the PA says it won’t talk, even indirectly, unless Israel agrees not to build in East Jerusalem, while Israel says the idea of not building in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem is a non-starter.
Mitchell, however, continues to express optimism, and he has backed it up by saying he will return to the region next week. Mitchell’s optimism is based on reports that PA president Abbas has reacted positively to pleas from Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, and Obama that he proceed with indirect talks.
Abbas reportedly will consult with Arab states this week and may well also travel to Washington to meet with Obama. It is thought that the meeting in Washington might occur in mid-May.
If the meeting occurs, expect Obama to treat Abbas with all the respect due the head of a state (which Abbas is not). Don’t expect him to present Abbas with a set of demands and then go off to dinner, as Obama reportedly did to the head of the State of Israel. For that matter, expect Obama to treat Abbas better than he has treated British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
As for what indirect talks might accomplish, I agree with the Abbas who is said have low expectations of the U.S.-brokered talks, but does not wish to offend Obama or be cast in the role of nay-sayer. If the PA has to be brought kicking and screaming into a process that does not even involve sitting down with Israel — as I understand it, indirect talks means that the parties communicate through Mitchell, who shuttles between them — then the prospects for reaching a meaningful agreement are practically nil.
But right now, the name of the game isn’t peace, or even agreements, it’s saving face. Obama, Clinton, and Mitchell need to avoid the appearance of total failure in their effort to move the “process” forward. Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas wants to be the one that stands in the way of this result, provided they don’t have to give up much of anything.

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