What will drive Israelis, Palestinians to talks

With Secretary John Kerry confident of talks starting soon, the new imperatives in the US and Middle East can help drive a peace deal between Israel and Palestinian leaders.

AP Photo
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the media at the Knesset, Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem July 22. He is fast-tracking legislation that would allow him to put any peace deal with the Palestinians to a national referendum. Polls have suggested a majority of Israelis support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but many groups are vehemently opposed, including hard-liners among Israel's West Bank settlers.

For more than 40 years, every American president has had to be a schoolyard teacher watching over Israelis and Palestinians, jumping in to persuade them either to stop fighting or to make up – until the next fight. This mediation role by the United States has sufficed to maintain an on again, off again peace. With negotiations expected to start again soon after three years of stalemate, will this time be any different?

Top Israelis seem to think so. Ever since Secretary of State John Kerry announced a breakthrough Friday toward starting the talks, Israelis have debated how to approve any deal for a two-state solution – whether by national referendum or a cabinet vote. A few Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, are still insisting on some prenegotiation agreements. This implies that the outlines of a deal are pretty well known, with only a strong dash of political will needed.

To prevent the talks from being derailed before they start in Washington, a State Department spokesmen offers this necessary detail: “There are only a limited number of parties who know the true details of what was agreed.”

Hope is in the air, and for good reasons. President Obama has been firm ever since a 2011 speech on what a deal should look like. The region’s main agitators who might scuttle the talks – Syria, Hamas, and Iran – are weaker. Egypt and Iraq are in little shape to meddle. The Arab Spring, while in a muddied state, has left the Palestinian people with an even stronger desire for democratic self-rule. Israel needs a deal so it can better focus on the Iranian threat. And economic globalization has made territorial disputes, ethnic wars, and religious imperialism look like drags on progress.

The US role has long been to build trust and offer incentives for talks and compromise, as it did for the Israel-Egypt peace pact. This time, it put together a $4 billion investment package for the beleaguered Palestinians while making assurances on Israel’s security. But far more than money and power give the US this clout. Its strength lies in being an honest broker, one driven as much by ideals of a common humanity as by national self-interest, such as oil.

And as much as Mr. Obama wants to refocus US attention on Asia, he has still put his presidential prestige on the line for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, as did his recent predecessors in the White House.

In other words, US goodwill and commitment remain the main drivers for the two sides to even contemplate a different future. Those qualities endure despite an American mood, wearied by war and fixated on fixing the economy, that wants to withdraw from overseas entanglements.

With the window for a peace deal widening, these talks need even more public and private support than past talks. What’s happening outside the negotiating room might be far more consequential than the dealmaking inside.

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