Three mistakes the U.S. must not make in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

Talks this week mark the beginning of new negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. If the parties can devise a compromise to get past the expiration this month of Israel's partial freeze on settlement construction, they will be off and running.

How far they can run, however, depends on whether the United States can avoid three errors that would harm, and perhaps doom, the discussions.

The first mistake is to intrude too deeply and too often in what must be a bilateral negotiation. The Obama team appears poised to do just that, as it plans to send both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East peace, to the next round in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Sept. 14. Mitchell said this week that "the guiding principle will be an active and sustained United States presence" and "participation." The best-informed Israeli columnists say this is a polite formulation for far more. As Nahum Barnea wrote in the widest-circulation Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, on Friday: "In all the talks that Israeli governments held in the past, with the Arab states and with the Palestinians, the Americans only got into the thick of the talks at the last stage. The talks were direct and bilateral . . . Not this time. This time the Americans intend to sit at the negotiating table and to stay there. The talks will be direct, but trilateral."

This is a grave mistake: The Israelis and Palestinians do not negotiate seriously when U.S. officials are in the room; instead, they take positions designed to elicit American approval. The Bush administration tried trilateral talks, and the two sides argued more when we were present than when we were not. It's no accident that negotiations that yielded agreements, such as Oslo, were not only begun without us at the table but were kept secret from us. The U.S. role is critical, but mostly in cajoling and reasoning with both parties -- separately. Every session where Mitchell is present will be a lost opportunity for Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to dig in.

The second mistake -- one the Bush administration made as well -- is to concentrate on the negotiations and pay too little attention to life in the West Bank. Palestinians will give the talks no credence if their context is a worsening of conditions there, and whatever may be achieved at the table will be meaningless unless the Palestinian Authority (PA) is strong enough to enforce the agreements. And it doesn't appear to be. Reuters reported this week that "the United Nations has warned of a looming Palestinian cash crisis." Saudi contributions this year to the PA were "$30.6 million by August, compared to $241.1 million in 2009. The United Arab Emirates, which contributed $173.9 million in 2009, has yet to pay anything."

It is impossible to believe the PA would once again be broke if the United States were paying adequate attention and exercising adequate pressure. The Bush administration had to remind, browbeat and shame Arab oil-producing states into forking over what they had pledged, much less what their oil riches would have allowed them to pay. But this is what happens if Washington concentrates on ceremonial details and not how the PA will meet its payroll. A Palestinian state will be built not at Camp David or Sharm el-Sheikh but in the West Bank, which is where our greatest efforts should be focused.

The third mistake would be to seek a "framework agreement." Mitchell explained Friday that "Our goal is to resolve all of the core issues within one year. And the parties themselves have suggested and agreed that the logical way to proceed, to tackle them is to try to reach a framework agreement first. . . . A framework agreement is not an interim agreement. It's more detailed than a declaration of principles, but is less than a full-fledged treaty. Its purpose is to establish the fundamental compromises necessary to enable the parties to then flesh out and complete a comprehensive agreement that will end the conflict and establish a lasting peace."

Such an approach would doom the talks, regardless of whether the parties favor it. The difficult compromises necessary for a final-status agreement that resolves all the core issues will be made at the very end. The only way Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can defend such compromises is by delivering to Palestinians their own state; the only way Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can do so is by saying Israel will now get peace, not only with Palestinians but with all Arab states.

All this cannot possibly happen until a final-status agreement is signed and implemented. Asking the parties to announce their "fundamental compromises" on the core issues when a final-status agreement is years away is asking them to commit political suicide. Those compromises will be balanced by no visible reward, and even a "fundamental compromise" such as "Jerusalem must be shared" or "Israel can protect its security in the West Bank" gets you nowhere without endless detail explaining what you mean. This isn't Sinai, where there was only one easily grasped and implemented decision: Would Israel would give back every square inch?

It's worth remembering that the Geneva Initiative, an unofficial effort by well-meaning Israelis and Palestinians to draft a full final-status agreement, came to 500 pages. A vague "framework agreement" could be a sign of progress that keeps the negotiations going beyond one year, but efforts to force the parties to announce their bottom lines in advance of the final settlement will never succeed.

These negotiations will be long and hard. If the United States commits these three mistakes, as we seem poised to do, we will make the difficult impossible.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.