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Middle East peace talks: four reasons not to be cynical

Yes, there are huge obstacles. But the advantages of talking over fighting can't be discounted. Peace talks slow the killing, promote civil society, and may shift the dynamics in the region for a more stable future.

By P. Edward Haley / September 14, 2010

Claremont, Calif.

It is impossible to know whether this latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which began Sept. 2 in Washington, will lead to peace.

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There are huge obstacles.

Among them are domestic politics in Israel, which features a government led by conservative nationalist and religious parties. Compromise with the Palestinians is anathema to many within this fragile coalition, and its supporters.

The Palestinians are so deeply divided that they govern different geographic areas and are as opposed to one another as they are to Israel.

Many Americans, meanwhile, point to past failures and warn against future concessions. Now that Israel is relatively safe, they say, why force it to take steps that could turn the relatively quiet West Bank into another Gaza or Lebanon?

Talking rather than fighting

This is the usual way of counting risks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it overlooks the advantages of talking rather than fighting. They are significant, so significant that they outweighed the reservations of the two sides and persuaded them to accept President Obama's invitation to talk.

The first and greatest advantage of peace talks is to slow the killing. Those who argue that Israel's assaults have stopped Palestinian attacks forget the balance sheet of the past decade. A conservative estimate is that since the second intifada began in 2000, more than 700 Israelis have died as a result of Palestinian attacks, and more than 6,300 Palestinians have been killed by Israel.

Second, negotiations promote peaceful economic and political development. During the mid-1990s, the Oslo peace process encouraged the launching of bilateral economic initiatives such as Israeli and Palestinian joint ventures, most of which were destroyed by later warfare.

Third, as talks proceed, a precious web of civil society will begin to take shape between Arab and Jew, knitting together dentists, teachers, water experts, farmers, and others who join one another for mutual advantage regardless of nationality. These kinds of spontaneous associations were enormously helpful in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, but they falter in the face of violence and war.

Fourth, peace talks put the emphasis on refraining from attack and reprisal. In this way, negotiations dilute the fear and uncertainty that favor radical movements, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, that were born out of strife and have grown stronger with it.

Finding internal unity

Peace talks and the atmosphere of restraint they foster serve other, less obvious goals, too.