Skip to main content

Five ways to tell if Mideast peace talks are serious

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
August 13, 2013 -- Updated 1451 GMT (2251 HKT)
Every president in the past 50 years has tried to broker peace in the Middle East, including when President Jimmy Carter ushered the historic Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on March 26, 1979. Here's a look at other recent attempts for peace: Every president in the past 50 years has tried to broker peace in the Middle East, including when President Jimmy Carter ushered the historic Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on March 26, 1979. Here's a look at other recent attempts for peace:
HIDE CAPTION
Defining moments in Middle East peace talks
2010 | Obama
2007 | Bush
2000 | Clinton
1993 | Clinton
1979 | Carter
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israeli-Palestinian talks are set to begin this week
  • Aaron Miller says there are signs to look for to see if the talks are going anywhere
  • He says watching if the parties keep talks confidential is key; so is the U.S. role
  • Miller: Negotiators need to set out key principles, talk about borders

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Here we go again. This week, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will begin in Israel and the West Bank.

Having participated in my own fair share of these kinds of negotiations over the years, I wouldn't presume to discount Secretary of State John Kerry's effort. But I also wouldn't get my hopes up.

In 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell assigned me to assist Gen. Anthony Zinni, who had just been given a mission impossible: Negotiate a cease-fire between Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon in the middle of the second intifada.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

I asked Zinni straight out why he wanted to risk ruining a brilliant career on a goal he couldn't possibly achieve. He replied that he loved hopeless causes. In that case, I told him, he'd come to the right place.

Will these be the "Star Trek" negotiations and go where no man or woman has ever gone before? It's hard to say. But here are five signs that might offer clues as to whether there's life (or not) on planet Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Opinion: Americans, stay open to both sides in Mideast talks

1. Will the two sides maintain radio silence?

Israeli-Palestinian talks begin
Palestinians react to Israeli plans

So far, Kerry has done what no other U.S. official has ever accomplished: He's gotten the two sides who have a pathological history of leaking to essentially shut up. That's either because there's something meaningful to protect, or alternatively, there's nothing really there there, and that's worth hiding. I suspect it's the former. So watch the leaks from both sides.

If the substance of what's being discussed is being backgrounded to embarrass, pressure or undermine the negotiators, the negotiations are in serious trouble. Because this process depends on things Kerry has heard from each side that they can't say publicly yet or won't say to one another, radio silence is critical -- for now.

2. Are folks writing things down?

The famous Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn was right: an oral agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on. Oral exchanges and verbal commitments can be starting points. But serious negotiation requires stuff on paper.

More than this, every negotiation needs a way to organize the effort, and an agreement must be reduced to a text.

Ideally, the United States would control that text -- as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David or as James Baker did with the terms of reference and invitations to the Madrid Peace Conference. But the key question is whether the negotiators are working on language that will actually fill in the agreement. And what kind of agreement are they working toward: Borders/security first or an accord on the basic principles on all the issues?

If the parties aren't crystal clear on where they're heading, then any road will get them there -- and that's a recipe for drift and disaster.

The same is true for showing maps. Borders of a Palestinian state are a key element in these negotiations. If you hear that one side or the other won't produce them, start looking for a new conflict to mediate.

3. What's happening away from the negotiating table?

There was a time that we believed we could insulate the talks at the table from the environment outside. That was called Oslo, and the process failed. There must be some correlation. That's why Kerry has tried to get each side to stop doing negative things for a period of time -- six to nine months.

Israelis are supposed to do a phased release of Palestinian prisoners and limit settlement activity. Palestinians are supposed to stand down from efforts to bring the issue of statehood to the United Nations or press their claims against Israel in international bodies, and stop incitement too.

Already, both sides are unhappy with nonobservance of these actions. A certain amount of dysfunctional behavior from both sides is built into the reality that one is the occupier and one the occupied. But given how little the Israeli and Palestinian publics seem to have invested in these talks, everything possible must be done to demonstrate that life on the ground is changing too. And we're not off to a good start.

4. Watch what the tough guys say

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are as much about domestic politics as anything else. And watching those in each camp react to what's going on in the negotiations is important.

A certain amount of bluster from each side is expected. But one way to gauge the seriousness of what's happening is to look at how worried the opponents of the peace process are.

The Palestinians public is deeply skeptical of these talks. And Hamas for sure will oppose them. So will members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.

More important will be the reaction of the two newbies in Israel in politics and in the coalition: Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid. Pay careful attention to Bennet, whose right wing views count, and who will try mightily to make sure he knows what's being offered at the table. If he's relaxed and silent, you can bet the negotiations are remaining in pretty safe territory from Benjamin Netanyahu's perspective -- or he's being frozen out. Either way, watch out, signs of trouble may be brewing at home for the prime minister.

5. What's the U.S. doing?

The odds against a conflict-ending accord that addresses all the issues are pretty long.

It will require major moves from Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu and traveling to a place they've never been before. But it will also require the U.S. to be in the middle of the mix. Right now, Kerry describes the U.S. role as a facilitator, a term that has very little meaning. (It's the one we used to describe the American approach at the July 2000 Camp David summit). If this is going to work, both Kerry, and at the right time, Obama, will have to be all over these talks like a cheap suit.

Middle East peace is hard. And if the US wants an agreement -- assuming the two sides do -- they'll have to push, shove and use ample amounts of vinegar and honey to get a deal, including developing formal proposals to bridge the gaps on tough issues such as Jerusalem. And those U.S. positions need to be fair and reflect the needs of both sides.

Does the president want it that badly? If he does, a high-level, pretty high-risk leaders' summit is in his future. Stay tuned.

We may just have a chance this year to find out.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT