It’s easy to be pessimistic about the new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
There is no love lost between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israelis and Palestinians hold fundamentally opposing positions on every core issue, from borders to Jerusalem to refugees.
But President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who shuttled six times between Jerusalem and Ramallah in recent months to cajole both sides back to the negotiation table, are convinced that, over the next nine months, both sides will bridge their differences.
Israel and the Palestinians have negotiated many times before without success (the last time was back in 2010), and since 1993 three other U.S. presidents have tried, and failed, to broker a deal.
Why should this time be any different?
Before dismissing Obama and Kerry’s efforts as hopeless, skeptics should consider how recent international and regional developments make peace more lucrative today for both Israelis and Palestinians.
On the Palestinian side, the attempt to achieve a state by turning to the international community has not panned out. The United Nation’s Security Council never did consider Abbas’ bid for statehood and increased international condemnation of Israel, along with a growing global BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign, has not stopped settlement growth. If anything, the Palestinian Authority’s effort to internationalize the conflict has made Israelis more defensive and intransigent. There are now politicians in Israel’s government who, in calling for annexing the West Bank, are even more hard-line than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Other regional developments will also be important to Abbas’ calculations in the coming months. Hamas, the Palestinian Authority’s main nemesis, has been considerably weakened by its stance on Syria’s civil war. By siding with Syria’s rebels, Hamas has lost much-needed Iranian financial support.
Hamas has also fared poorly from the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi and the ongoing unrest in neighboring Egypt. The Egyptian military has not only initiated a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi’s supporters, but it has also destroyed most of the tunnels that run below the Egypt-Gaza border, which Gazans have been using for years to get fuel, food, and construction supplies.
Given Hamas’ difficulties, Kerry’s success in securing a $4 billion pledge from the World Economic Forum for Palestinian economic development gives Abbas a new reason to forge ahead for peace. After all, with 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank enjoying, with Israel’s blessing, an economic rejuvenation that they would like to see continue, and with 1.7 million Gazans reeling from the region’s turmoil, Abbas can finally say that he will deliver a tangible peace dividend.
As for Israel, Hamas’ weakness also gives it a new incentive to reach an agreement with the more moderate Palestinian Authority, while it still has the upper hand.
More importantly, it is the promise of normalized relations with the larger Arab world that helped entice Israel to the negotiation table last week, and might just keep it there. In a clever diplomatic move, Kerry managed to get Arab foreign ministers to reaffirm the 2002 Saudi peace initiative (which promises Israel an end to the state of war with the Arab world in return for relinquishing the occupied territories) and to express some greater flexibility on the issue of borders.
Most Israelis recognize the value of the Arab peace plan. A majority will be willing to support compromise with the Palestinians if the quid-pro-quo is a much broader regional peace.
Kudos to Kerry for demonstrating diplomatic skills not seen since the days of Henry Kissinger. But while Kerry has been indispensable to jumpstarting the latest round of peace talks, it is now up to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to finish the job.
They have a great deal of work ahead of them. They must create a culture for peace, and convince jaded publics that the status quo is untenable and that peace is worth the tough compromises that will be required to achieve it.
And they must prevent extremists from derailing the peace process and any agreements that are reached.
These potential spoilers include the typical suspects—radical settlers of the ‘price tag’ variety and terrorists from Palestinian opposition groups—but also regional actors.
Already regional groups eager to undermine the peace process have emerged. Take the example of Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Last Friday, he used the occasion of Al Quds/Jerusalem Day to make his first public speech in almost six years, expressing solidarity with Palestinians and calling Israel a “cancer” that must be eradicated.
It’s no wonder that Nasrallah chose last week to resurface. With Lebanese increasingly angered by Hezbollah’s support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, anti-Israel inflammatory speeches are a great way to divert public attention. In the coming months, Nasrallah may try to also shore up his group’s legitimacy not only with hate speech, but by attacking Israel and inviting a harsh Israeli counter-strike. Hezbollah has set these traps before; Israel must not fall into one again.
The cynic in me says that this new round of negotiations doesn’t have a shot at succeeding. But ever the optimist, this time I think a lasting and just peace is a distinct possibility. If Obama and Kerry stay engaged and if Israelis and Palestinians don’t get distracted and can keep their eye on the prize—the Arab world’s acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East and an economically viable, sovereign state of Palestine—the current gamble for peace might just pay off.