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.
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 â€“ 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 â€śvery cautious optimismâ€ť about Mr. Kerryâ€™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 â€“ roughly Kerryâ€™s timeframe for the effort.
So why are others â€“ among them some of the strongest skeptics about the chances of a comprehensive accord any time soon â€“ 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.
â€śWhile one should be extremely cautious about any major progress in the immediate term,â€ť Kerryâ€™s initiative nevertheless demonstrates that â€śthe Israelis and Palestinians are still able to talk to each other,â€ť says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington. â€śWeâ€™ve gone from nothing to something,â€ť he adds, and â€śyouâ€™ve got to start with something.â€ť Â
But there are other reasons. Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians despite the upheaval in the Middle East would send an important message to the regionâ€™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 conflictâ€™s more resolvable points of contention, some experts say.
A final peace accord â€śis not really attainable at this point in time,â€ť but that means â€śwe need to settle for more modest objectives,â€ť 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 â€śgradual and certain progressâ€ť toward a â€śseparation of two nation statesâ€ť 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 â€śidentityâ€ť issues â€“ the status of Jerusalem, and refugees â€“ to be resolved later, he says.
â€śBorders and security are attainable within the coming year,â€ť Sher says.
Others who are less optimistic about the talks leading anywhere say there are reasons the two leaders involved â€“ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas â€“ 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 Kerryâ€™s full-court press for resumed talks is better than a â€śnoâ€ť for Netanyahuâ€™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 Kerryâ€™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.Â
â€śAbbas doesnâ€™t think he can get a deal with Netanyahu,â€ť says Khalil Shikaki, a senior fellow at Brandeis Universityâ€™s Crown Center for Middle East Studies. Still, Abbas sees in the talks the means of boosting his own â€ślegitimacyâ€ť among West Bank Palestinians, he adds.
Any interim agreements that allow proposed economic development programs to go forward could improve conditions for Palestinians â€“ 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 Abbasâ€™s favor, he adds.
Shikaki, an expert on Palestinian public opinion, says Abbasâ€™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 â€śmovementâ€ť in the negotiations, he says.
But if settlement activity continues unabated, â€śthere will be tremendous pressure on Abbas to drop the talks and go to the ICC,â€ť 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 Kerryâ€™s peace initiative.