An Optimistic Take on Today’s Israeli-Palestinian Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the appointment of Ambassador Martin Indyk as the U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations in July 2013. Image: U.S. Department of State Middle East analysts have long been pessimistic about the hopes for a final status agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. This sentiment exists to this day, even after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s seven months of shuttle-diplomacy in the region succeeded in re-launching direct negotiations between the parties for the first time in three years.

But if there is anything that can be said about the Middle East, it is that even the smallest spark can uproot the conventional order. The desperate act of a fruit-seller in Tunisia, combined with decades of poor economics, corrupt governance, and subservience, prompted tens of millions of Arabs to revolt in what would become known as the Arab Spring. The result has been nothing but historic: the jailing of a former dictator in Tunisia, the death of another in Libya, and the shattering of the most basic assumptions about the region’s politics.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, has been the one problem in the region that remains constant. Establishing a Palestinian state that coexists peacefully with Israel has defied every American president that has attempted to take on the challenge. President Barack Obama became the latest victim in 2010. He discovered just how difficult Israel-Palestine diplomacy can be when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walked out of discussions in protest over the growth of Jewish settlements in the West.

After three years of nonexistent high-level contact among Israeli and Palestinian officials, diplomatic gaps have only gotten wider. What an independent Palestinian state would ultimately look like, and whether Jerusalem would be a shared capital, are two of the most important and thorny issues that still need to be hashed out. As the weaker party, the Palestinians are hesitant to negotiate with an Israeli Government dominated by right-wing parties who are not interested—and at worst, opposed—to the two state solution. Meanwhile, the Israelis will not compromise on their core demands: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a military presence along the Jordan River Valley for security purposes, exclusive rights over Jerusalem, and the right to swallow up large Jewish settlements on West Bank land.

There are, however, some noteworthy developments in this latest round of peace talks that have not existed before. Secretary Kerry is a far more forceful personality and mediator than veteran U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who served as President Obama’s special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during his first term. Kerry views the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as an important foreign policy issue that has often jeopardized Washington’s diplomatic credibility in the eyes of the Arab world. He has long been involved with the debate, first as a Senator and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and now as a Secretary of State. Right now, Kerry is holding the Israelis and Palestinians together and ensuring that details from discussions are kept in the room rather than leaked to the media. In contrast to previous negotiations in 2010, Kerry is proceeding cautiously, denouncing the construction of settlements as unhelpful, but refusing to allow the buildings to terminate the process.

Moreover, negotiations this time will commence for a period of nine-months. Making peace between two suspicious neighbors is a long and frustrating task, and takes a considerable amount of time; establishing a long timetable locks both parties into the negotiations process for the remainder of the year. Nine months could ultimately be too short, but it is still longer than the last round of peace talks in 2010, which ended abruptly after Mahmoud Abbas left the negotiations a few weeks in. Another sudden walkout is unlikely this time, if only because Kerry’s guidelines cements both parties to continue the discussions for nine full months, regardless of the difficulties that may occur during that time period.

In addition, the League of Arab States, traditionally seen by westerners as an inept and cumbersome institution, has demonstrated a newfound willingness to provide Palestine with the regional backing it needs to strike a permanent and binding agreement with Israel. The Arab League peace initiative, originally put forth by then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz during the height of the second Palestinian intifada in 2002, was resurrected and updated this past April by Arab League member states to include a major change: Arab League has formally recognized the concept of land swaps in order to meet the demographic needs of Israel.  This flexibility on territory illustrates the Arab world’s evolution in thinking about the conflict. The Arab League no longer holds ideological positions that are non-negotiable; pragmatism, rather, is winning the day. Whether or not the Arab League’s support for mutually agreed land swaps will push the process forward remains to be seen, but it at least signals to negotiators in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah that the region’s foremost multilateral organization understands that the demographic needs of Israel—where hundreds of thousands of settlers live east of the pre-1967 green line—need to be met.

Finally, the most dramatic difference this time around is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to set free around one hundred Palestinians who were convicted on charges of terrorism—an incredibly difficult decision, given strong resistance from some ministers in his cabinet, emotionally-charged protests from Israelis who have lost family members in acts of terrorist violence, and his own long history as a politician in the right-of-center Likud party. The decision will serve as a show of good faith to President Mahmoud Abbas, who is clashing with his own allies in the Palestinian Liberation Organization over whether to even participate in the current peace talks.  While one hundred people may not seem like a lot from the view in Ramallah (a West Bank City where thousands of Palestinians remain locked up in Israeli jails), most of those prisoners have engaged in heinous crimes against Israeli civilians and soldiers, which affirms Israel’s commitment to reaching a compromise.

Direct discussions on core matters are only just beginning. After an initial foray in Washington, where chief Israeli and Palestinian diplomats discussed the process over dinner, the real talks kicked off in Jerusalem on Wednesday, August 14. But for the first time in a long time, a determined American mediator is pushing both of the parties to make tough but necessary compromises. With constant encouragement from the United States, the European Union, and key Arab states, and a full investment from all participants in the talk’s success, 2013 could very well be the year when a conflict that has divided generations of Israelis and Palestinians is narrowed, and peace is finally achieved.