Middle East peace talks: Finding believers amid the skeptics

The chances of a full Israeli-Palestinian peace deal emerging from the talks being pushed by John Kerry are slim, Middle East experts say, yet even some skeptics believe there could be benefits.

Mandel Ngan/Pool/AP
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday, July 19, 2013 in the West Bank city of Ramallah. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stepped up his drive to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, meeting with the Palestinian president Friday as he sought to close a deep divide between the two sides over a formula for resuming peace talks after nearly five years.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week still have no date, and most regional experts are giving any resumed peace process long odds of success – especially as leaders from the two sides seem to pile on conditions for simply sitting down together.

Even the White House expressed what spokesman Jay Carney on Monday called “very cautious optimism” about Mr. Kerry’s initiative, while many seasoned analysts of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict see almost no chance that a comprehensive settlement can be negotiated in the coming year – roughly Kerry’s timeframe for the effort.

So why are others – among them some of the strongest skeptics about the chances of a comprehensive accord any time soon – supportive of the effort, and convinced that it can actually deliver something?

The simplest explanation is that, at least in the eyes of some, and after three years of almost no high-level contact between the two sides, talking will be better than not talking.

“While one should be extremely cautious about any major progress in the immediate term,” Kerry’s initiative nevertheless demonstrates that “the Israelis and Palestinians are still able to talk to each other,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington. “We’ve gone from nothing to something,” he adds, and “you’ve got to start with something.”  

But there are other reasons. Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians despite the upheaval in the Middle East would send an important message to the region’s people, some experts argue. Frustrated Palestinian youths chafing at continued occupation may be less likely to launch a third intifada, especially if talks are accompanied by pressure-reducing steps like an Israeli prisoner release, others suggest. The Palestinian Authority, they add, would be less likely to launch tension-provoking initiatives on the international stage, such as seeking International Criminal Court (ICC) action on Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

Moreover, failure to reach a comprehensive peace accord does not rule out reaching interim agreements on some of the conflict’s more resolvable points of contention, some experts say.

A final peace accord “is not really attainable at this point in time,” but that means “we need to settle for more modest objectives,” says Gilead Sher, a former Israeli official with long involvement in the peace process who is now director of the Center for Applied Negotiations at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies.

A “gradual and certain progress” toward a “separation of two nation states” is possible with agreements on issues such as borders, security, economic development measures, and even settlements, Mr. Sher believes. A key to achieving important initial steps would be to leave the most difficult “identity” issues – the status of Jerusalem, and refugees – to be resolved later, he says.

“Borders and security are attainable within the coming year,” Sher says.

Others who are less optimistic about the talks leading anywhere say there are reasons the two leaders involved – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – have agreed to them.

Mr. Netanyahu is dedicating much more attention to Iran and its nuclear program than to the Palestinian issue, Israel experts say, but that focus has the Israeli leader interested in nurturing ties with the US. And clearly a positive response to Kerry’s full-court press for resumed talks is better than a “no” for Netanyahu’s relations with the Obama administration.

Indeed, President Obama telephoned Netanyahu last week before Kerry made his announcement Friday, to encourage him to put Israel on board Kerry’s peace train.

In a similar way, Mr. Abbas has good reasons to climb aboard, even if prospects for the major steps the Palestinians want are not bright. 

“Abbas doesn’t think he can get a deal with Netanyahu,” says Khalil Shikaki, a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies. Still, Abbas sees in the talks the means of boosting his own “legitimacy” among West Bank Palestinians, he adds.

Any interim agreements that allow proposed economic development programs to go forward could improve conditions for Palestinians – and thus public support for Abbas, Mr. Shikaki says. Stepped up security cooperation between the two sides as a result of short-term confidence-building steps could also work in Abbas’s favor, he adds.

Shikaki, an expert on Palestinian public opinion, says Abbas’s agreement to join the talks is not without risks, however. If Israel agrees to some form of a settlement freeze, that would allow Abbas some freedom of “movement” in the negotiations, he says.

But if settlement activity continues unabated, “there will be tremendous pressure on Abbas to drop the talks and go to the ICC,” Shikaki says.

And while few analysts believe recourse to the ICC would deliver quick or meaningful results to the Palestinians, such recourse would undoubtedly spell the end of Kerry’s peace initiative.

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