WASHINGTON — It was like old times for the Israeli delegation in Washington, as negotiators and journalists alike struggled over two days to answer the Passover-eque question of how these talks are different from all other talks.
For Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and US mediator Martin Indyk, the rhythm of peace talks has become second nature. The only top dealer who seemed truly excited about the talks was US Secretary of State John Kerry, a relative newbie to the top level of peace-process negotiations.
And yet even the State Department’s answer to the question of “what is new now” was recycled. Before the talks began, one State Department official said that Kerry sensed that time “was not on his side”, and that this round of talks represented an effort to grasp at a vanishing opportunity. Failure to act, said State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki, would only allow those opposed to the talks to gain more strength.
“Haven’t we heard that before?” asked a reporter.
The press corps and the delegation fell into a familiar rhythm of stake-outs and snippets in the lobby of Washington’s opulent Mayflower Hotel, the favorite home-away-from-home of Israeli delegations in recent years.
American tourists ogled at the news cameras, and struggled to figure out what the big deal was in the lobby as the Israelis tried to explain why 2013 was not a repeat of 2010.
And came back empty-handed.
This time around, there were no enthusiastic proponents of new benchmarks, of catchy phrases like “roadmap”, or of novel formats for upcoming talks. The first-round format echoed previous iterations of talks –- bilateral meetings, tripartite meetings, joint announcement.
Delegation members were at pains to cast the collegial atmosphere at the closed-door sessions in a positive light. The participants, they said, all knew each other. They have been working together for years. They can hold polite conversation.
Erekat, negotiations veterans are quick to divulge, is easy to sit across from (or in Monday’s case, next to) at a dinner party. The Iftar dinner, attendees emphasized, was like a reunion.
And the level of excitement in the American capital is commensurate with the enthusiasm of people being dragged back to their home town for a high school reunion.
Washington, with its spin doctors and analysts, has struggled over the past two days to find something novel in the talks to grasp hold of and to turn into a headline. The palpable lack of enthusiasm in the American capital – not opposition to peace talks, but merely a gigantic Washington yawn – reflects the failure to do so.
The hot Washington political blogs all but ignored the talks, focusing instead on a myriad of domestic issues, as well as the declining conditions in Syria and Egypt. Capitol Hill reacted similarly, with a series of rote press releases marking the opening talks, but little enthusiasm on either side to discuss the peace process.
At least one longtime observer and participant in peace talks said that perhaps it is the collective apathy –- in addition to the years of prior experience –- that will make these talks different. Perhaps the very lack of excitement will enable the sides to talk, seriously, under the cover of low expectations for success.
As the negotiators prepared to leave Tuesday afternoon, the focus was already turning away from the peace process. The House of Representatives geared up to approve the most extensive sanctions ever against Iran, and immediately after he finished meeting with the two delegations, US President Obama hopped aboard a helicopter for a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he continued with his main policy goal of the summer – to plug his economic agenda.
The peace process left Washington Tuesday almost as abruptly as it arrived on its agenda only 10 days earlier. In its wake, cynics shrugged and pundits explained, while the tourists at the Mayflower wondered where the drama had gone, and prepared to return home with stories of a real Washington experience.