Stephen M. Walt

Faith Over Experience

As I write this, numerous online news stories and Twitter feeds are announcing the imminent resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. (Apparently the framework for the talks is still being finalized, but presumably it’s enough of a done deal for the United States to go public.) It is to some degree ...

As I write this, numerous online news stories and Twitter feeds are announcing the imminent resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. (Apparently the framework for the talks is still being finalized, but presumably it’s enough of a done deal for the United States to go public.) It is to some degree a vindication of Secretary of State John Kerry’s dogged effort to get the peace process started again, and no doubt he and the rest of Barack Obama’s administration are going to spin this achievement as an important breakthrough.

I hope they’re right, but we can all be forgiven for a certain skepticism by this point. Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership have been taking place off and on for over two decades (not counting the various back-channel, covert, or track II discussions), and the main result of all that palaver has been the further expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and the steady deterioration of Fatah’s prestige and authority. Let’s also not forget that Hamas was a relatively minor force when the Oslo process started back in the early 1990s; today it governs in Gaza. America’s handling of the "peace process" hasn’t won it any laurels either; serving as "Israel’s lawyer" merely confirmed that the United States was incapable of being an effective mediator and made the country complicit in Israel’s harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.

The only serious question to ask is whether this new round of talks has a better chance of succeeding. And let’s be clear: Success means actually reaching a final status agreement that establishes a viable state for the Palestinian people. Kicking the can down the road for another few years is not success. Endless discussions that collapse in mutual recriminations, while the bulldozers continue to demolish Palestinian homes and construction crews erect more condos and apartments for Israelis in the occupied territories, are not success either. And neither is another demonstration of American fecklessness, naivete, and diplomatic incompetence.

The structural reasons for pessimism are plain for all to see. First, Israel’s government is led by a man who opposed Oslo from the start and whose Likud party’s official platform openly rejects any possibility of a Palestinian state. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of a Palestinian "state" in recent years, it is clear that what he has in mind is a set of disconnected Bantustans under complete Israeli control, which is of course a nonstarter.

Second, most of Netanyahu’s governing coalition is even more hard-line than he is, and his government would almost certainly collapse if he were to offer the Palestinians any sort of reasonable deal. And given that the Israeli peace movement is much weaker than it used to be, it’s hard to imagine a different Israeli government being substantially more forthcoming.

Third, the Palestinians remain deeply divided themselves. Not only does this reduce their bargaining leverage (which was already pretty paltry), but it means Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has to get a pretty good deal if he is going to sell it to the broader population and marginalize the rejectionists. But as just noted, it’s hard to imagine him being offered anything very generous by his Israeli counterparts, and it’s even harder to imagine the United States putting sufficient pressure on Israel to make the kind of concessions that would now be needed.

Fourth, these are hardly ideal conditions to pursue a final status agreement. Syria is in flames, Lebanon is unsettled, and Egypt’s future course is anyone’s guess. One might argue that these events give Israel a big incentive to resolve the I-P issue once and for all, but even the boldest Israeli peacenik might be leery of making the necessary concessions while the regional environment is so uncertain. I personally think that this view is shortsighted and that Israel would be more secure if it reached a fair deal with the Palestinians, but I can easily understand why even moderate Israelis would proceed with caution these days.

So what are the grounds for optimism? Well, it is possible that Netanyahu & Co. are aware of broader global trends that are working against them. The recent EU decision barring aid to organizations operating in the occupied territories was a straw in the wind, and TIAA/CREF’s recent decision to divest its holding in the Israeli firm Soda Stream might be another. By reminding even hard-line Israelis that the occupation is eating away at their international acceptance, such events give even the current government some reason to think differently. And there are prominent voices inside Israel — such as the former Shin Bet heads profiled in the documentary The Gatekeepers — who have been sounding the alarm about where Israel may be headed.

It is also possible that Obama will show more spine than he did during his first term and that he’ll get sufficient cover from groups like J Street so that he can pursue a more effective approach. That approach is going to require a combination of bribes and pressure: Kerry and Obama will have to convince both sides that a bright future is ahead of them if they can end the conflict and focus instead on economic development, but Kerry and Obama are also going to have to make it clear that things are going to get worse for both sides if they don’t. The Palestinians know that already, of course, because they are the ones under occupation and dependent on international handouts. On the other side, American economic subsidies and diplomatic protection have been insulating Israel from the consequences of its own intransigent expansionism. Until that situation changes, there’s little reason to expect a different outcome this time.

Still, it will be interesting to see what the terms of the new discussions are. Will the 1967 borders be viewed as the starting point for talks, albeit with the understanding that the final borders will almost certainly be different? Will anything be said about a settlement freeze? What time frame, if any, will be put on the discussions? And will either leader make a gesture designed to demonstrate a genuine interest in reaching an agreement? I don’t know, but I will be looking to see whether any of the three main parties — the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority — does or says anything different or surprising this time around. If not, then there’s no reason to expect a different outcome.

My forecast: a lot of talk, but ultimately no action. The Palestinians have nothing left to give up (save for symbolic concessions over the so-called "right to return"), and I can’t see Netanyahu offering them a deal that comes even close to a viable state. And while Kerry’s tenacity is admirable, I’ve yet to see any sign of a genuinely different U.S. approach. Remember: Assorted U.S. diplomats have spent thousands of hours going back and forth with both sides over the years and have ended up with bupkis. So I think we’ll see more talks, along with more settlement building, and ultimately no agreement. And then Obama and Kerry will be gone, and another "opportunity" for peace — if it even is one — will have been lost.

I take no pleasure in this gloomy appraisal, and I will be genuinely delighted to be proved wrong here. I’m prepared to eat my words, but alas, I fear I won’t have to.

UPDATE: The text of Kerry’s statement announcing the talk is now available here.  He says a lot of the right things, and I’ll be curious to learn more about the "positive steps" he says both sides are taking on the ground.  Words matter here, but actions usually speak louder.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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