Opinion

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.

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

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.

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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.

Privately, Palestinian Authority officials say that they will be unable to overcome the challenges posed by rival political party Hamas (a terrorist organization in Washington's eyes) unless ways can be found to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank. The standard of living there has yet to return to the levels of 2000. The Palestinian Authority currently runs a budget deficit of 60 percent, and unemployment stands at nearly 20 percent. It is able to operate only thanks to international assistance, much of it from the West.

For Israel, the most immediate gain from the opening of talks has been to reduce its international isolation. Israelis across the political spectrum understandably resent what they see as global bias against them. But relations with other governments, especially with previously friendly governments such as Turkey, have been damaged by Israel's heavy-handed unilateralism.

The resumption of peace talks may also reflect Israel's anxious desire to finally resolve a conflict that could sever the next generation of American Jews from their Israeli counterparts.

Deep divides among Israelis

Decades of violence have produced deep splits among young Israelis and led more of them toward views that conflict with democratic values. A recent poll conducted by Tel Aviv University found that 48 percent of Israeli high school students would refuse direct orders to evacuate settlements in the West Bank, while nearly half said Israeli-Arabs are not entitled to the same rights as Jews in Israel.

Opinion among young non-Orthodox American Jews, according to studies by pollster Frank Luntz, Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College, and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, shows less division and more of a growing indifference to Israel together with a deep longing for peace. These are quiet long-term consequences of the years of violence and confrontation, but they are signals that Israel's leaders cannot ignore.

For the Obama administration, the talks not only mark the culmination of nearly two years of politically costly hard work; they also offer a rare opportunity to shift the dynamics of the region away from war and terrorism, reducing the atmosphere of crisis that favors radicals. If the talks succeed, the process could be broadened to include Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, and even Iran.

The talks need not solve every problem immediately in order to improve the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians, but if the parties fail to move convincingly toward peace, the benefits of "jaw-jaw" will be lost to "war-war."

P. Edward Haley is W.M. Keck Foundation professor of international strategic studies at Claremont McKenna College. He co-wrote "Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security."

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