Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Name That Process

In Friday’s State Department press conference, P.J. Crowley rejected a description of the administration’s new peace process as “indirect talks.” That produced the following colloquy:

QUESTION: What’s – why are you allergic to saying, yeah, it’s going to be indirect talks. I mean, it’s obvious from what you’ve described that that’s what it is. They’re not talking to each other, you’d like them to talk to each other sometime, but now, like a tired, weary, and sad marriage counselor, you’re going to shuttle back and forth between them. (Laughter.)

MR. CROWLEY: All right, Arshad, tell us what you really think. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: What’s the problem with – I mean, what’s the problem with saying indirect talks? Why is that – why are you allergic to that phrase? … Why won’t you call them indirect talks?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to put a label on them…

QUESTION: Can you call them parallel talks?

MR. CROWLEY: Samir, I’m not playing a – do we have Middle East labels for $200?

“Parallel talks” is not a bad label, since the two sets of talks — like parallel lines — are never going to meet. But that label does not quite capture the logic of the process.

Over the past three months, the Palestinians have insisted on a settlement freeze as a condition of negotiations (even though they did not negotiate when they had one), and Israel has insisted on direct talks without preconditions. Having failed to get negotiations going after nearly two years, the Obama administration has come up with a process involving neither a settlement freeze nor direct talks — failing to meet both sides’ requirements. Perhaps a better name for the new process would be “parallel un-talks” (PUNT).

In her Saban Center speech Friday night, Hillary Clinton used a phrase that might become the State Department’s new label: “substantive two-way conversations.” But a more accurate label would be “dual substantive two-way conversations,” since there will actually be two separate two-way conversations (and how “substantive” they will be remains to be seen, since the Palestinian insistence on both a state and a “right of return” makes the whole exercise academic).

What about “Son of Proximity Talks”? In a perceptive analysis that should be read in its entirety, Robert Satloff suggests that the new process would not be a return to the dead-end proximity talks, which were just “talks about talks.” He says the new process could be a “high-level engagement with leaders exploring a set of hypotheticals,” with each side asked what it would do if the other did so-and-so. Satloff says the exchanges would require “discretion, candor, and authoritativeness.” I knew there was a catch.

The problem is more than one of process; it is more fundamental. Netanyahu made his Bar-Ilan speech more than 18 months ago, accepting a Palestinian state as long as it accepted a Jewish one and agreed to be demilitarized, with arrangements that would ensure it would stay that way. Until the Palestinians are prepared to negotiate on that basis, the process — whatever it is called — is not going to succeed.