On the Eve of Talks, Israeli and Palestinian Negotiators Get Ready for an Unlikely Deal

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PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosts dinner for the Middle East peace envoys: Israeli chief negotiator Isaac Molho, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and veteran Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh, at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on July 29, 2013

When the new round of Middle East peace talks begins in Jerusalem on Aug. 14, they will differ markedly from some of the intense face-to-face negotiations that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have conducted in the past in the hope of finally reaching a final agreement between the two peoples. Instead, the process this time — which is meant to result in a deal after nine months — will begin with a meeting between two appointed negotiators from each side, with an American emissary refereeing. None of them will have the power to cut a deal.

“We have wonderful negotiating team lined up on both sides, but the real decisionmakers are not in the room,” says Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and a peace advocate who know well each of the negotiators due to meet in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will not be present.

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Instead, representing the Israeli side will be Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign Minister who joined Netanyahu’s Cabinet with the explicit promise that he would make her a negotiator with the Palestinians and that he would support a resumption of peace talks. Formerly a stalwart of the Israeli right wing, Livni has in recent years become committed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as part of a final deal. But her Tnuah party only brought six of 120 Knesset seats into Netanyahu’s coalition, meaning she carries limited political influence with her to the negotiating table.

Netanyahu has appointed veteran lawyer Isaac Molho his chief negotiator. The Prime Minister has brought in Molho several times in the past to represent him, both in Palestinian negotiations and in domestic affairs, like in coalition talks. Netanyahu, sources close to the Premier said, puts complete faith in Molho and views him as a straight shooter who doesn’t have a hidden agenda or his own political ambitions. But some in the Israeli press have dubbed Molho a “babysitter” who has been sent in to make sure that Livni is coordinating closely with Netanyahu and not making offers he would never be prepared to honor.

“What Molho brings to the table is the institutional memory of every detail of the negotiations in recent years,” says Dore Gold, who served as foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu during his first term in office and is now the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank. “The key to successful negotiations is to have the historical record in mind. One of the biggest problems that Israeli governments have is that they fall from power after two to three years. On the Palestinian side, you have someone like Saeb Erekat who has been there all along and has never missed a beat.”

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Erekat has served as chief Palestinian negotiator for much of the past two decades. He speaks fluent English and is a familiar face at the negotiating table for Israelis; in some respects, Israel knows what it is getting with Erekat. In the past he has shown that he is prepared to compromise on some key issues. But Erekat has strongly repudiated Israel’s decision earlier this month to approve the construction of nearly 1,200 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying that the talks “may be unsustainable” amid continued settlement building.

Accompanying Erekat is Mohammed Shtayyeh, an economist who since 1996 has headed the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, which oversees almost all economic-and-infrastructure development throughout the Palestinian territories. Like Erekat, he is a former academic with a doctorate from the U.K. He’s served twice as Minister of Public Works in Abbas’ government and has been on Palestinian delegations to peace talks with the Israelis from as early as 1991. Like Molho, he has a deep knowledge of previous negotiations. Working to cajole the two sides towards an agreement is U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk, who has been involved in shaping Washington’s diplomacy in the Middle East conflict for several decades, most notably during the Clinton Administration.

“Indyk is one of the four or five Americans who know the situation best,” Liel says. “But looking at the negotiators at the table overall, unfortunately it’s quite a technical team. This is a kind of simulation of the real thing. These negotiators can’t even get close to a breakthrough without instructions from above, and Abbas and Netanyahu will have to decide if they’re convinced and when to make a move. In past negotiations, by comparison, we had Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter in the room for two weeks. And in the second Camp David, we had Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat in the room — also for about 10 days.”

Although hopes on both sides for an agreement remain muted, Palestinian officials say they have geared up for the best-case scenario — that the talks will actually lead somewhere.

“We have been preparing for this in a very serious manner. It’s unbelievable how many experts we have called in, to look at maps, to discuss sharing agreements on Jerusalem,” says an official in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations unit office, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks. “Even if some people believe that nothing will come out of this, we have prepared as if we believe that something will come out.”

An official in Netanyahu’s office says the Israelis are similarly preparing for serious talks, which include gearing up teams of specialists to address some of the main issues that will need to be resolved, including the final borders of both states, the future status of Jerusalem and the claims of Palestinian refugees to return to the West Bank, Gaza or to what is now Israel.

PLO executive-committee member Hanan Ashrawi tells TIME that the first issue she expects the negotiators to hit on, as per Washington’s agenda, is borders. But that issue spills over to other explosive ones, such as Jerusalem and security.

“The Americans want to focus on borders and security, the Israelis want security only. Our position is only talking about a state in the 1967 borders,” Ashrawi says, referring to the border between Israel and Jordan from 1948 to ’67, which Palestinians see as the basis for an agreement. “We’re hoping that we can start where Abu Mazen and Olmert left off,” she added, referring to the 2010 talks that took place between Abbas and the then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. During that meeting, Olmert came with a proposed map, and a meaningful discussion ensued. The map showed Israel annexing some of its largest settlement blocs, but giving alternate tracts of agricultural land inside Israel to the Palestinians. Abbas wanted to keep the map, but Olmert refused, so Abbas apparently sketched it on a napkin, according to documents leaked — or perhaps stolen — from the Palestinians’ negotiating office two years ago.

The challenge this time will be to come up with a map that will be just a little more permanent.

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