Why some are optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

The widespread turmoil in the Middle East and the desire of leaders on both sides to leave their mark on history could tip the scales in favor of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

By , Staff writer

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    Secretary of State John Kerry stands with former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 29, as he announces that he Indyk will shepherd the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
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Secretary of State John Kerry has set the stage for the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks he will relaunch with a dinner at his Washington home Monday by noting that success will require “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues.”

The prospects for compromise by Israeli and Palestinian leaders on issues ranging from borders and security (those are the easier ones) to Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees have many officials and regional experts giving the renewed talks very long odds of success.

But at the same time, widespread turmoil in the Middle East and the desire of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to leave their mark on history could confound the skeptics and tip the scales in favor of reaching a peace agreement, others say.

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“There are a couple of reasons for optimism here,” says Peter Krause, a Middle East specialist at Boston College who points to leaders’ concerns for their legacy and a realization that failure could empower new, more radical leaders, as reasons not to write off Secretary Kerry’s effort.

Speaking at the State Department Monday, Kerry acknowledged that “going forward” it will be a “difficult process,” adding, “If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago.” The resumed talks are the result of six trips Kerry made to the region and hours spent with both Messrs. Netanyahu and Abbas since taking the secretary of State job in February.

Officials and experts on all sides say the renewed talks simply would not be happening if it weren’t for Kerry’s determination to restart a peace process he calls the “granddaddy” of American diplomatic efforts.  

After greeting the chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators – Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat – at his home for an iftar dinner Monday, Kerry will host the two sides at the State Department Tuesday, where they are expected to establish the framework for what Kerry anticipates could be nine months of negotiations.

The goal of the negotiations – and the many compromises Kerry says will be required along the way – is a final-status settlement of the issues behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a Palestinian state living in peace with a secure Israel.  

Kerry announced that the American team at the talks will be led by Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and a onetime assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs who is now vice president and director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Introduced at the State Department as the new special Middle East peace envoy, Mr. Indyk said he was inspired to accept the post by President Obama and by the example of Kerry’s determination. He quoted Mr. Obama as telling Israelis in March that “peace is necessary, peace is just, peace is possible.”

This is a “daunting and humbling challenge,” Indyk said, “but one I cannot desist from.”

The question of US engagement in the negotiations could become increasingly crucial down the road, when the two sides are likely to hit an impasse on a particular issue, many regional experts say. “At what point do [the Americans] put out their own proposals?” asks David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

With renewed violence in Egypt and the grinding civil war in Syria dominating news from the region, Middle East peace talks are getting little fanfare – reflecting the low expectations for results. But the regional context may actually be a reason that talks are going forward, some say.

In a sea of upheaval, the Israelis and Palestinians are demonstrating “a kind of stability” that makes the talks possible, says Dennis Ross, a former special adviser to Obama on Middle East issues who is now counselor at the Washington Institute.

Behind the Americans’ renewed peace effort is not only the realization that their ability to have an impact in Syria and Egypt is “somewhat limited,” Mr. Ross says, but also a desire to stop the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from going the way of other deteriorating regional conflicts.

The United States has surveyed the array of Middle East conflicts, he says, and concluded, “Do you want to see that issue collapse as well?”

In addition, Ross says the headline-grabbing conflicts mean “everybody else in the region is completely absorbed” in what’s going on elsewhere – leaving more “political space” for the Israelis and Palestinians to move forward.

None of which changes the reality that the “prospects for success are still long,” Ross says.

Sounding a somewhat more optimistic note, Indyk said at the State Department that for 15 years, he has been reminded of the illusive nature of Mideast peace by a screen saver, developed for him by his young son, that asks him every day, “Is there peace in the Middle East yet?”

Indyk said the Kerry effort, backed by the White House, gave him hope that he could one day reply to his son, “This time, we actually made it.”

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