It was back in 2003, right after yet another attempt to reignite the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, that President George W. Bush uttered one of those shabby phrases that will haunt him forever; it will appear along with the famous "Bushisms." Bush's sober assessment was offered aboard Air Force One as he left Jordan after attending a summit on Middle East peace talks. He hoped to have an independent Palestinian state "within two years," he said. For some reason, it is usually within two years—Bush promised two years, then in 2009, Obama promised two years.
But in 2003, Bush was only cautiously optimistic, or maybe unpretentiously pessimistic. Now Obama is about to relaunch "direct talks" between Israelis and Palestinians for the thousandth time. And now the hope is for a solution within one year, not two. Bush once called himself "the master of low expectations." Obviously, a line like that can't work for the president of The Promise.
So, low expectations are now the domain of legislators, experts, pundits, hacks, spin-masters, and all the other observers busy with the sure-to-be nonevent that is scheduled for early September. (Just one or two writers are toying with obligatory and cautious optimism.) The Palestinians are saying they will "give it a month." The Israelis are warning that "we need a real partner." No one rates the talks' chances—not even Israel's arch-peacemaker Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo Accords and a perpetual optimist. (Actually, he defines himself as a pessimist). Beilin told the New York Times that the Obama administration was wrong to set a one-year goal ''There is not a chance in the world that in a year—or two or three—peace can be achieved," he said. Giving interviews in Israel, he was even more critical of the administration's sense of timing. No one gives the talks a chance—except Team Obama.
The Americans aim to surprise: Instead of the traditional two-year goal for achieving the hoped-for lasting peace, they will try to "resolve all final-status issues … within one year." Since deadlines are never met anyway, why not aim high: Around this time last year, just when special envoy George Mitchell was meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in the hope of—this might sound familiar—relaunching peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, I began a skeptical Slate piece by quoting Peres:
We must not let the month of September pass without a new beginning and starting negotiations," Peres said. As if September had some special significance. Everyone involved had let August pass, July pass, and June and May and April pass without "a new beginning." Why not September?
To which I now add: Why not September 2010?
The Americans say the time is right. The time may be right for the Obama administration, though it's not clear why, but it is hardly right for the parties involved. Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, think Iran is a more urgent priority. They believe the Palestinian problem can wait a little longer, and they see no Palestinian leaders they can make deals with. The Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, were dragged to these talks kicking and screaming, and they don't seem to intend to give an inch. They think Netanyahu doesn't really mean business, and they have a hard time dealing with criticism from Hamas, Syria, and other regional belligerents. "There's clearly a trust deficit that we're going to have to find a way to overcome," presidential adviser and longtime special envoy Dennis Ross explained. The two leaders mistrust each other, but they also find it difficult to trust the American mediator, and the proposed pathway to peace, and the timing, and the achievability of the goals. They are the true masters of low expectations.
There are many ways to explain why the chances of success are so low. "Israelis and Palestinians are entering the talks next month based on different working assumptions," is one way of putting it. "There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguousstate in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza). ... There is no sign that Israel's government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian 'state' consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans," is another. It all depends who you want to blame for failure: the reluctant and too-hawkish Israelis, the hard-nosed and too-weak-to-lead Palestinian Authority, the "wily" and uncommitted Arab leaders, or the naive and incompetent Americans.
All the explanations have some validity, and all are quite exhausting to the people whose lives are entwined in this peace-process saga. When a "breakthrough" was achieved last week, and "direct talks" were finally announced, not all the Israeli newspapers bothered to carry this seemingly important news on their front pages. Been there, done that—why bother paying attention? And when Arab opinion is considered, the picture is no less grim. According to a recent survey, 94 percent of Arabs believe either that peace will "never happen" or that it will "take more time." A mere 4 percent have told pollsters that peace is possible within five years.
There used to be a reason for setting low expectations. We were once told that low expectations lead to happiness. You lower your expectation in the hope that humility will help you achieve your goals. You lower your expectations hoping that you will be pleasantly surprised by a more positive outcome. But the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems to be the outlier, the case in which low expectations have no role to play, no goal to serve, no hope to provide. In this case, low expectations seem to be just, well, a sober description of reality. In this case, the strategy of low expectations is just another casualty of this neverending conflict. And that is one good reason to want these talks to begin.
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