It finally happened. After nearly five years of estrangement, Israeli and Palestinian representatives met in Jerusalem on Wednesday to resume direct negotiations.
Plenty of people are greeting the talks with a familiar degree of skepticism, and there are plenty of reasons to be so inclined. We’re dealing with the same old politicians as last time, the same jaded populaces, and we’re no closer today to dealing with the major issues—Jerusalem, refugees, borders and security—than we were the last time around.
But this time we should give hope a chance: There are key differences between the summer of 2013 and the fall of 2008 that give reason to believe things may turn out better this time.
On the Palestinian side, Abbas’s political calculation entering the talks is certainly quite different now than it was in 2008. When then-Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Abbas negotiated in 2008, Olmert was mired in scandal and just days from being pushed out of office. Much as the Israeli prime minister personally wished for the talks to succeed, it was highly uncertain that he had sufficient political capital to shepherd any new agreement through the Israeli political process. Abbas must have understood this, so it’s not hard to see why he would have hesitated to respond to Olmert’s offer. Why would Abbas have wanted to risk making politically painful compromises to Olmert if he had little faith that Olmert would be around?
Domestic Palestinian politics today also provide greater incentive for Abbas to want this round of talks to succeed than in years past. In 2008, Abbas was a relatively newly elected and popular president, with strong poll numbers and time to show that his non-violent approach to the conflict would yield dividends. Today, with little meaningful progress towards two states having been made during his eight years in office, and with bottled up frustrations running high among Palestinian, Abbas needs to show that he can deliver results. If talks fail again, Abbas knows he could well face another intifada with devastating results not only for himself, but for Palestinians’ hopes for the future. Even if he manages to sidestep a violent outbreak, Abbas will likely feel compelled to ramp up his activities at the UN and the International Criminal Court, setting off a wave of funding cuts from Israel and the US that will bring severe economic hardship to Palestine.
On the Israeli side, two elephants have walked in the room since 2008 to significantly increase Israel’s incentive to move on the Palestinian front: Iran’s advances in developing nuclear weapons capabilities, and the phenomenon formerly known as the Arab Spring
Twenty years ago, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin concluded that Israel needs to resolve the Palestinian conflict in order to address the Iranian threat. As he saw it, only by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would Israel be able to establish the sort of close cooperation with Sunni Arab states that would be needed to effectively thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iran’s hegemonic designs. Netanyahu seems to have reached the same conclusion.
The mounting unrest in Egypt, which makes the future of the Egyptian military’s role in governance unclear, gives Israel reason to be increasingly nervous about the stability of its peace treaty with Egypt. This should give Israel additional impetus to build alliances elsewhere in the Arab world, a task that has recently become more salient and plausible following the Arab League’s modifying and reissuing the Arab Peace Initiative. Yet again, new Arab alliances can only be forged once Israel deals with the Palestinian conflict.
Finally, on the American side, we have an administration that appears to have more leverage over the parties than it did in 2008. The Bush Administration was a lame duck with just three months left in office when Olmert presented his famous offer to Abbas. The Clinton Administration was similarly handicapped by time constraints during the Barak-Arafat negotiations, having waited to pursue final status talks until there were only 6 months left in President Clinton’s second term. In the present round of talks, by contrast, the second Obama Administration is in its first year of office. If Netanyahu or Abbas disappoint the Administration now, which includes a Secretary of State who is his betting his credibility on this process, they would have to deal with an unhappy administration for several long years to come.
There are reasons to give hope a chance in the current peace talks. The political environment today is far more conducive to reaching an accord than it was when negotiations last took place. To be sure, the path to peace is still littered with obstacles and it will take consistent and courageous leadership from all sides to attain an agreement. But this time, these two peoples’ tired old leaders, prodded by a vigorous and committed American administration, may just feel compelled to try the unimaginable and see talks through to a successful end.