Why 'cautious pessimism' prevails in Middle East
July 30th, 2013
09:39 AM ET

Why 'cautious pessimism' prevails in Middle East

By Robert M. Danin, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Robert M. Danin is Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former director for the Levant and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs at the National Security Council. He writes the blog Middle East Matters at CFR.org. The views expressed are his own.

Writing in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Nadav Eyal characterized his country’s view of this week’s peace talks with the Palestinians as that of “cautious pessimism.” Palestinian public opinion is even gloomier. Mutual cynicism about the prospects for peace is not surprising, given that the two sides have been unsuccessfully negotiating an end to their conflict intermittently for over two decades. Having seen their hopes and aspirations dashed so many times before, why should this time be any different?

The initial indicators are not overly encouraging: That U.S. Secretary of State Kerry had to invest so much time and effort just to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to meet suggests that he may want the talks more than them. Ultimately, it was Kerry’s sheer tenacity that made the price of saying no for the parties higher than acceding to the United States chief diplomat. But so far, what the parties have mainly agreed to is a process, not to a deal.

The prevailing view amongst diplomats and commentators is for talks to make any forward progress from here, the United States will have to be intimately involved, and more than just a host for talks. At a minimum, the U.S. is going to have to be an active broker and facilitator, goes the argument.

More from CNN: Kerry's bold push for peace

Yet in several instances of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, American efforts to broker peace so frustrated the parties that it helped galvanize one or both of them to make progress despite U.S. involvement. President Jimmy Carter’s intention to broker a Middle East peace conference in Geneva in 1977 convinced Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that peace would be more likely if he worked directly with Israel thereby precipitating his historic journey to Jerusalem. Similarly, Washington-hosted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks languished without progress after they were launched in Madrid in 1991, leading Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to reach a secret bilateral peace agreement with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1993.

For any talks to really move forward, Israeli and Palestinian calculations will have to change. That is what happened during the last serious major U.S. initiative: the Annapolis process launched in November 2007. Recall, those talks came on the heels of the horrific violence of the second Intifada that resulted in more than one thousand Israeli deaths and some 5,000 Palestinians dead. Few expected then Prime Minister Olmert, who had been elected to power on a platform arguing that Israel had no genuine negotiating partner, to become an ardent proponent of a negotiated peace.

What Olmert found, like many others involved in such efforts, is that negotiations themselves can be transformative, changing the cost-benefit calculations of one, if not both, sides in the talks. Indeed, the Annapolis talks benefited from the low expectations of the Israeli and Palestinian publics at the time. This allowed the two sides to pursue extensive talks in many channels away from constant media scrutiny and score keeping. In that quiet space, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators forged personal rapport, understanding, and yes, even some trust. The result was the most forthcoming Israeli territorial peace offer in history, one that produced neither a Palestinian yes or no.

Hoping that the parties will either change their calculations during the talks, or become so disenchanted with the United States that they may decide to make progress together is possible. But for now it is only a hope. This may give Israelis and Palestinians some reason to suspend their “cautious pessimism” while negotiations proceed. But not much.

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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Is there really a difference between cautions optimism and cautious pessimism?

    July 30, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • virginia

      unfortunate there is a difference, its somewhat like 'care for but ignored or cared for but isolated' there is a difference, the result end in two opposing views...like the two side of a mirror and reality.

      August 3, 2013 at 12:41 am | Reply
    • virginia

      unfortunately there is a difference, its somewhat like 'care for but ignored or care for but isolated' there is a difference, the result end in two opposing views...like the two side of a mirror reflection and reality.

      August 3, 2013 at 12:46 am | Reply
  2. hifly3r

    I am an irrationally exuberant pessimist.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Reply
    • txwiseman

      Muslims can never live peacefully with any other religion, so your sentiments are accurate!

      August 3, 2013 at 11:23 am | Reply
      • Intisarul Islam

        Your comment makes no sense. There are 6 million Muslims in the US living in peace with other religions today. Furthermore, there are many religious minorities living in most Muslim nations who are treated just fine. And you are speaking as if the Arab-Israeli conflict is a "Muslim vs. Jewish" fight, which it is NOT. On the contrary, this conflict is a nationalistic struggle (at least, on the Palestinian side). There are also many Palestinian Christians, and there are also Jews who are opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

        August 3, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
  3. sand

    soon the usa british australian empire is going to collapse then all british and usa children are going to get killed and after that all ireland dublin and ghanaian children are going to get killed and after that all moroccan and brazilian children are going to get killed all your women and children are going to get r a p e d in the a s s to they bleed.

    July 31, 2013 at 3:33 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Perhaps Israel is more than ever anxious to forge a deal with the Palestinians in light of the political turmoil in Egypt and Syria. It has agreed to releasing some prisoners, which was unthinkable in the past.
    On the Palestinian side, it's regrettable that the Hamas are excluded. Martin Indyk, the Middle East veteran and special envoy had once said that "a peace process that excludes" Hamas were "bound to fail".
    Saeb Erekat is taking part. Is it a good idea to have him on board? No doubt he's a very experienced negotiator. However in 2009 he claimed that Israel's then right-leaning government was undermining the PA by going back on Israel's commitments. Does he share this view today?

    July 31, 2013 at 10:05 am | Reply
  5. Towel Heads

    "Saudi activist receives 7-year sentence, 600 lashes for insulting Islam." Gee really? It should say, "Sentencing someone to 7 years and 600 lashes MAKES Islame INSULTING". Stupid Towel Heads. There will NEVER be peace in Towel Head land until Islame moves to the 21 century (which will be NEVER!)

    July 31, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  6. Roland

    We need new world order, in which Chinese and Koreans do not play a significant role in US and World relations. USA cannot hide behind unknowledge, cannot fool her western alliances, because EUROPE are stronger and more influential countries. EU and NATO do not want one non-reliable and non-abiding USA.

    August 2, 2013 at 6:09 am | Reply
  7. virginia

    there is no peace between the yes and the no, there is only pushing them forward full circle or half way...they never change their form they continue to be 'yes' and 'no' indefinitely. there is no getting the yes and the no to joint forces and form one there is only a working along side to get the best results from using other one as is need it...when the no yields its only moved a bit forward but it preserves its shape indefinitely. it may seem like you got a yes but it just moved forward taking ground but not with out the expense of loosing ground.

    August 3, 2013 at 12:58 am | Reply
    • virginia

      logistics Ironies and paradoxes

      August 3, 2013 at 1:00 am | Reply

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