While the resumption of peace talks has been greeted with considerably more apathy, pessimism and outright hostility than optimism among Israelis and Palestinians, the American mediators are broadcasting an insistent confidence that things have changed and past failures might yet be overcome.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, the six-times-this-year visitor to the region to whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ultimately could not say no, has been stressing that “this is a difficult process” and “many difficult choices lie ahead.” But, as Kerry said Tuesday at the media conference summing up the first two days of contacts, he is convinced that “we can get there.” Plainly, he wouldn’t have invested all that personal effort if he didn’t think there was a realistic prospect that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders would make the “reasonable compromises” he says are needed “on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues.”
The next few months will determine if the skeptics — notably including veteran pundits who have seen so many such US-led peace bids crash and burn — have got it wrong this time, and the Kerry-led peace team has got it right. Here are 7 reasons the Americans, if not too many others, believe this time could be different.
1. President Barack Obama’s visit to the region is seen by the US peace team as the starting point of a potential sea change. Israelis were won over emotionally within minutes of Obama’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. He stressed the Jews’ attachment to this land, he took off his jacket, he went strolling around the airport in his shirtsleeves with “my friend Bibi,” and we were his. But the president is convinced that his trip had a substantive impact too, on Israelis, Palestinians and their leaders, impressing upon them the imperative to try to solve the conflict, and providing the assurance that his administration was committed to helping them do so.
2. Since then, Kerry has taken up the baton, and believes that he has built relationships of trust with Netanyahu and Abbas, convinced them of his investment in the peace effort, and gradually managed to create a more positive climate for progress. His efforts to minimize leaks have been a factor in the parties’ growing faith in him, the Americans believe. It’s an effort he’s intent on maintaining, so that private negotiations remain private — and trade-offs and compromises can be explored out of the media spotlight, without consequent public pressure — unless or until a deal is done. The appointment of Martin Indyk as the talks’ coordinator, they are confident, too, brings an experienced, trusted mediator into the mix. Indyk will be the hands-on player, possibly basing himself in the region as the talks move into higher gear. Kerry will be deeply involved, but has the rest of the world to worry about, and will not attend every session of negotiations.
3. Getting the sides to the table should have been relatively easy, and plainly wasn’t. Yet while critics highlight the fact that it took Kerry six trips to drag everybody off to Washington, the Americans prefer to highlight what they see as the tough decisions taken to get there. For Netanyahu, the wrenching agreement to the phased release of pre-Oslo prisoners; for Abbas, the climbdown on precondition demands for a settlement freeze and an Israeli acceptance of the pre-’67 lines as the basis for negotiating the borders of a Palestinian state. Maybe each leader only said yes to prevent the other from winning the blame game over a Kerry failure? Maybe, but that’s not the way the Americans see it.
4. Unlike 2010, the last time the US managed to pull Israel and the Palestinians into the same room, there’s now a potentially lengthy period for the sides to negotiate. Three years ago, Abbas only came back to the table at the very end of Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement freeze, and the resumed talks were over almost as soon as they had begun. Now, they’ve committed to nine months of negotiation, and there’s more time if they need it, though Kerry believes nine months will be enough if there is a genuine readiness for viable compromise.
5. Both sides have committed to seriously discuss “all of the core issues,” as Kerry confirmed on Tuesday, and to do so early in the talks. Netanyahu may want Tzipi Livni to focus first on security; Abbas may want Saeb Erekat to initially concentrate on borders. But all issues are on the table from the get-go — including Jerusalem. The Americans know how wide the gaps are between the two sides. For instance, Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval Office, in public, two years ago about the impossibility of a return to the pre-1967 lines; but a return to those lines, with very minor adjustments, is precisely what Abbas is insisting upon. And yet, the Americans are convinced that, with growing trust, the necessary trade-offs can be made. Kerry did not engage in substantive back-and-forth negotiations on core issues during his half-a-dozen recent visits here. His focus was the back-and-forth on getting the sides to the table. But he knows the Israeli and Palestinian positions on the core issues, and believes both that reasonable compromises exist, and that the respective leaderships are capable of reaching them.
6. The Americans do not regard Abbas’s failure to seize Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer to Abbas — which included a full withdrawal from the West Bank with one-for-one land swaps to encompass major settlement blocs, the division of Jerusalem into sovereign Israeli and Palestinian areas, and the relinquishing of Israeli sovereignty in favor of a non-sovereign trusteeship in the Holy Basin — as proof of Abbas’s ultimate intransigence. They believe both Abbas and Netanyahu have been impacted by the passage of time, by the new regional environment, by a shared concern at the conflict moving into a zone in which it becomes unresolvable. It’s not entirely clear why or how they believe these factors might soften the sides’ positions and lead them to take decisions they would not previously have taken. Regional instability is unlikely to push Netanyahu toward a greater readiness for territorial compromise, for instance, though the desire for greater concerted pressure on Iran might. But believe they do. And unlike the Olmert offer, sprung on Abbas on a “take it or leave it” basis by a prime minister soon to leave office, any deal this time would be arrived at gradually, through mutual trade-off and compromise, they note.
7. The goal is emphatically to reach a final status, end-of-conflict accord. But the Americans are adamant that they do have fall-back positions. As underlined by the eruption of the Second Intifada in late 2000 — the Arafat-inspired strategic onslaught of suicide bombings — following the failure of the Camp David peace effort hosted by president Clinton, the Kerry team knows it would be irresponsible to shoot for the moon without a Plan B alternative landing place in the stars. Some kind of interim accord? Well, possibly. But to discuss it in any detail would be to undermine that effort at the real deal — an effort they are cautiously optimistic, this time, will pay off.