This Could Actually Work

Why John Kerry's Middle East peace push isn’t a fool's errand.


It was a tall order, but Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts seem to be paying off: We now appear to be on the cusp of renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The formula for achieving this is still largely shrouded in secrecy, but whatever emerges is likely to be, at least at first, essentially "negotiations about having negotiations." The prospects for a major breakthrough in the immediate term seem remote. Yet this achievement, in and of itself, should not be underestimated.

Kerry has been commendably energetic in his efforts to restart talks. And it’s clearly paying off: The secretary of state seems to have received pledges from both sides not to take steps that could sabotage a revived peace process. He secured a commitment from the Palestinians not to pursue any further initiatives to join additional multilateral institutions, particularly the International Criminal Court, while Israel also appears to have given some private assurances that it will postpone scheduled settlement construction in highly strategic areas of the West Bank. Finally, the Arab League committee dealing with the issue clarified that the Arab Peace Initiative doesn’t rule out land swaps, and therefore is not the set-in-stone dictate many Israelis perceived it to be.

Kerry has been playing his cards very close to his chest — few in the administration or elsewhere in Washington are privy to the exact details of what he has put on the table. The Arab League delegation that met with him on Wednesday for a briefing on his proposals, though, may be better informed than most. And so far, the diplomats sound optimistic: They emerged from the talks declaring that Kerry’s suggestions "lay the proper foundation to start the negotiations." The Arab League imprimatur is crucial for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as it provides him political cover in domestic politics. But it is certain that the Arab League would not have declared its enthusiasm if Abbas had not strongly signaled he wanted them to do so.

Significantly, the Arab League statement specified "new and important political, economic and security elements" to Kerry’s proposals. Since March, Kerry has been discussing a possible $4 billion investment package to enhance the Palestinian economy. There are clearly additional elements of the proposal hinted at in the Arab League statement that have not yet been made public.

Particularly when there is little optimism about immediate breakthroughs, the name of the game for both Israel and the Palestinians — especially regarding relations with the United States — is not to be seen as "the guys saying ‘no.’" The last time the Obama administration made a major push for Israeli-Palestinian talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to use both American and Palestinian miscalculations about the settlement issue to ensure that the Palestinians would be seen as the primary uncooperative party. That doesn’t mean Israel didn’t receive its share of the blame as well: It was seen as playing a cynical game with settlements. But neither Obama nor Abbas will be eager to see a repeat of that previous round of diplomacy.

There are still political obstacles in the way of revived peace talks. Some Fatah leaders are resisting the prospect of new talks, apparently insisting Israel agree that they be based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, and accept a settlement freeze. Netanyahu’s office, meanwhile, is denying press reports that the prime minister has agreed to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.

But in spite of these domestic political hurdles, each side’s desire not to be seen as the obstructionist party will likely mean that both will soon enough agree to begin talking again. Both Abbas and Netanyahu have faced domestic opposition to resuming talks in the past and overcame it. These relatively uncontested leaders will almost certainly find a way to do so again, despite the grumbling among their colleagues.

Along with the carrots that Israel will certainly receive from the United States for entering negotiations, it must also deal with European sticks if it is unwilling to seriously discuss ending the occupation. The European Union just unexpectedly issued new guidelines that will prohibit the organization from funding or cooperating with Israeli institutions operating in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, with a few exceptions. The United States declined to criticize the EU measure.

Israel is therefore on notice that much of its traditional Western support base is simply losing patience with the ongoing occupation. The EU measure would not have been taken if there were not clearly a growing sense that Israel is growing ever less willing to fully end the occupation. And it strongly suggests Israel can look forward to even further isolation if it persists with its current obstructionist policies.

For the Palestinians, increased American investment is welcome — but getting their own political house in order is urgently required. Continuing to build on the momentum of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s groundbreaking institution building, governance reform, and anti-corruption policies is essential. Such efforts will guarantee that a Palestinian state will be viable and a deal will be durable, particularly in the context of the aspirations expressed in the "Arab Spring" uprisings across the Middle East. They would also provide a vital additional source of momentum, or at least stability, should talks stall or fail. And such policies are, in and of themselves, essential for Palestinians to continue to develop their own society.

The United States must take this Palestinian domestic reform project seriously. It’s essential that any major investment package in Palestine be conducted with appropriate levels of transparency and accountability. If not, it could feed into the old narrative of Palestinian corruption. Major investment projects from the 1990s, which did not have sufficient transparency and accountability, provide an instructive example of what should be avoided.

Moreover, as the United States strives to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together at the negotiating table, it should engage Palestinian civil society. Popular buy-in is necessary for any major initiative, and it is essential that a diverse, dynamic, and vibrant group of Palestinian actors have a stake in the process. It’s not enough to simply talk with the established elites: Palestinians have lost faith in most of their existing political institutions, so engaging a diverse set of voices is necessary to build popular support for the new peace initiative.

There is every reason to be pleased that talks are likely to resume, but also to be cautious about the likelihood for any immediate progress on final status issues. It is therefore essential that a set of parallel, bottom-up tracks be developed that support diplomatic efforts and can help mitigate any potential frustrations.

Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is a high-wire act of the first order. It is wise, and indeed essential, to undertake it with the appropriate safety net in place below.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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