Earlier this week, Palestinian and Israeli leaders met in Washington to launch a new round of peace negotiations.
There are cynical and skeptical Palestinian and Israeli publics, but the parties agreed nonetheless.
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the media on Monday, he told listeners that he was under no delusions.
“It’s no secret this is going to be a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” he said.
As Kerry stood before the crowd, there were none too few who questioned his intentions. Why now? Who wants this and who is ready for this?
There is no question that Kerry — and the Obama administration — is at the top of that list. The question is whether the Israeli and Palestinian publics, and their leaders, want it as much as Kerry does.
“One would have doubts,” said Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent at The Jerusalem Post. “My doubts would be more on the Palestinian side than the Israeli side, though the Israeli side is not jumping up and down, either.”
Keinon cited the pre-agreement back-and-forth as an example of how pressured the two parties felt. He said that when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas first presented Kerry’s proposal to the PLO, the group said no. Kerry had to fly back and forth between Amman, Jordan, and Ramallah on the West Bank to strike the deal.
“The Palestinians didn’t want to do it but were dragged into it because they were afraid of incurring American wrath if they didn’t come to talk,” said Keinon.
David Makovsky, Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute, expressed similar sentiments about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said the prime minister does not want to further isolate Israel by refusing to negotiate, and one can tell from his recent addresses that he is viewing Israel’s willingness to engage in this process not as one based on goodwill toward the Palestinians but on the self-interest of the Israeli state.
On the American side, however, there’s real value.
“It is an American national security interest to have Arab-Israeli peace,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.
Keinon explained that the Arab-Israeli conflict is “the only place in the Middle East where the U.S. can be proactive instead of reactive. It could have a beneficial impact for the U.S. if they are able to move something. It is important to America at a time when its whole Middle East policy is, as some would say, muddled.”
Makovsky cautioned, however, that solving this issue will not be an open sesame to solving Syria, Iraq and other conflicts. He also said that while thought leaders in Jordan and other parts of the Arab world told Kerry the Arab-Israeli conflict is the core issue of instability in the news, if he believes that, he is “being blind to reality.”
Jewish American organizations have certainly jumped on the bandwagon. Overnight, most of the major Jewish organizations came out with statements supporting the talks.
“This is a great achievement for Secretary of State Kerry, who invested so much time and diplomatic effort in finally bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, Jewish Council for Public Affairs president. “Two states for two people cannot be achieved without strong U.S. leadership, and we are thankful.”
“The resumption of talks …. brings hope of new opportunities to move toward a peaceful resolution and an end of the conflict that has taken such a heavy toll,” said the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a statement.
But as talks resumed and the parties met in Washington, D.C., one reality became apparent: The two sides likely are not ready to deal with final-status issues.
“Do we want to bring both sides to the table and force them to make choices when they are not ready to make them?” asked Keinon.
This is especially true, given the concessions that each side already has had to make — some that are causing upheaval in their home communities.
In Israel, Netanyahu agreed to release 104 prisoners in four batches, many of whom have blood on their hands. This decision, which passed in the Cabinet by a 13-to-7 margin (after a nearly six-hour meeting), has spawned a multitude of rallies — and outcries by victims of terrorism and their families who stand to see their loved ones’ murderers set free.
“You had a situation where Abbas had been telling the Arab public that unless Netanyahu commits to talks based on the pre-’67 lines, and unless Netanyahu agrees to a complete freeze [of construction] in the settlements, he is not going to deal with him. He had to back off from those demands,” said Makovsky. “So he said, ‘Let me have this.’ ”
Moreover, Makovksy noted, the Palestinian Authority had to contend with Israel’s trading 1,000 terrorists for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Israeli teenagers get lost in the West Bank all the time and the residents there don’t hold them hostage; the P.A. wanted to be rewarded for that.
On the flip side, the Palestinians committed to not bringing any charges against Israel to the U.N. during the course of the negotiations. That frees Israel from some pressure, enabling it to focus international attention on issues such as a nuclear Iran.
Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu are as strong as the leaders of the past (Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Rabin), said Makovsky. With Abbas opposed by a virulent Hamas and Netanyahu looking over his right shoulder and averse to risk, public support will be vital to move the process forward.
What happens when the two sides hit a brick wall? Hopefully Kerry can massage the thing, and maybe there can be efforts to go to an interim agreement. Maybe.
The challenge is that both publics, said Telhami, don’t believe a two-state solution is possible.
“They may be open to it,” said Telhami, “but the majority don’t think it is possible anymore. The return to negotiations does not address the profound mistrust and absence of faith in a deal.”
A poll released on July 24 by the Tel Aviv University and the Dialog Institute showed that 39 percent of Israelis would vote for a peace deal if it were brought to a referendum (which was a condition Netanyahu put forth when agreeing to talks), while 16 percent said they would probably vote for a deal. Five percent said they would likely oppose it. Twenty percent were unsure.
Worse still, while Israelis report wanting peace, most feel achieving it is unlikely. An Israel public opinion poll, fielded by the Dahaf Institute and released by the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution in May, revealed that 51 percent of Israelis are saying that lasting peace with the Palestinians will never happen; 40 percent say it is inevitable but will take more than five years. If the two-state solution collapses, 13 percent think it will lead to the one-state solution, 37 percent say that the status quo will remain, 35 percent expect intense conflict for years to come, and 6 percent expect that the Palestinians will give up.
In the meantime, there is a nine-month window to try to make this work. And at the helm will be former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. Assisting Indyk will be Frank Lowenstein.
It’s not a deadline, said Makovsky, but it is the belief that the parties need to sit together long enough to ascertain if this is possible. The Israelis also need assurance that 2010 won’t repeat itself, when the Palestinians sat for three weeks, determined they had heard enough and then went to the U.N.
Telhami said he thinks nine months sounds right. He also thinks that now is the right time.
“The people observing this situation for years are divided into two groups. One says it is too late already for a two-state solution. The other says that soon it is not going to be possible anymore,” he said. “No one says we have all the time in the world.”
Maayan Jaffe is managing editor of WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.