An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Peace Process Is Back

The cynics may not believe it, but Kerry's push to get Israelis and Palestinians talking could actually work.

By , the president of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former Israeli negotiator.

Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth. It's hardly surprising, then, that the champagne was kept on ice following Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement that a resumption of talks was imminent.

Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the champagne was kept on ice following Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that a resumption of talks was imminent.

There are very good reasons to doubt that a revived peace process will deliver a two-state deal, or even much by way of progress. Kerry’s statement was rife with uncertainty regarding exactly when the talks would happen, and what agenda they would address. Nor does it help that Israeli government ministers rushed to retake pledges of loyalty to the settlement project, or that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will sit down at the negotiating table without any of the prerequisites he had outlined as the basis for a meaningful process.

The domestic politics of each major player in the peace process also should be a reason for caution. Much of the Israeli cabinet seems to prefer annexation of the Palestinian territories over a two-state outcome, the Palestinians remain politically divided and weak, the major Arab countries remain fixated on instability at home, and the Americans remain politically timid. Yet well-placed caution — and even pessimism — should not translate into defeatism, which risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

President Barack Obama’s administration deserves credit for having understood from day one the significance of the Israel-Palestine issue for the region, and for how America is perceived there. Even amid so much upheaval, from Syria to Cairo, this issue retains its iconic status and remains an albatross around Washington’s neck. Kerry also deserves credit for having taken that commitment to a new level with his personal engagement, visiting the region six times since becoming secretary of state.

Though cynics may say otherwise, there is a value in having overcome the impasse of endless talks about talks and the pre-negotiation blame game. Beyond putting an end to the bizarre spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu playing the role of "The Shunned Suitor of the Palestinians," here are five things this latest attempt to revive the peace process has going for it.

The Kerry urgency factor

The secretary of state seems to have abandoned the ridiculous idea that America cannot want a deal more than the parties themselves. Of course it can: A sustainable Israeli-Palestinian deal is a U.S. national security interest, as every U.S. CENTCOM commander has unequivocally testified since the 9/11 attacks.

Significant forces in Israeli politics, society, and government think that Israel can run out the clock on the two-state option — and a comparable trend exists on the Palestinian side. Given this reality and American discomfort with the alternatives to two states, it falls to the United States to stand with a stopwatch and inject urgency into the process.

It matters that Kerry is so personally invested and determined in this effort — and he should remain so, even if additional envoys are appointed. The secretary of state cannot be easily ignored by either side when he engages on the issue, especially since Obama has done just enough to demonstrate his support — as he did by calling Netanyahu in the middle of talks last Friday.

Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy may look old school, but it has gotten us this far. Hipsters might crow about digital diplomacy, but face-to-face talks are far more relevant to this conflict. And Kerry will have to stick to the task: Progress will require an effort mapped out over the remaining 42 months of Obama’s second term, allowing time for political change to percolate among the protagonists.

Israeli politics — not as hopeless as it looks

After winning the January 2013 election, Netanyahu set about forming a coalition with a majority opposed to a two-state outcome. Even if Netanyahu were to entertain an Ariel Sharon-like break with his party over a territorial compromise — which he has thus far shown no inclination to do — it is unclear whether more than a handful of his own party members would join him, or that the Israeli political center would defer to his leadership.

But that doesn’t mean all is lost. There is very likely a majority within the current Knesset for a two-state deal, made up of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (19 seats), the ultra-orthodox parties (18), Labor (15), Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (6), Meretz (6), and Kadima (2), for a total of 66. Many of the 11 members of the Knesset from the ostensibly Palestinian-Arab parties would also be supportive. A "Netanyahu and friends" break to the center could strengthen that majority — but it can exist without them.

Close observers of the Israeli political scene might scratch their heads at the inclusion of the ultra-orthodox in that potential pro-peace majority. But they’d be wrong to write the Haredim off: They were never great Zionists or settlement proselytizers. In fact, the two big ultra-orthodox settlements hug the Green Line and can easily be accommodated in a land swap; they are currently at loggerheads with the settler right, have supported peace moves in the past, and interpretations of Jewish law provide them cover for agreeing to de-occupation.

The bottom line is this: If there is a moment of truth on a two-state solution, don’t assume that Israeli domestic politics will automatically ruin it. But don’t expect Netanyahu or the Israeli political system to voluntarily generate that moment.

Kerry is focusing on territory

Negotiations of this kind will always rely on a degree of creativity and imagination, but they also require some inescapable anchors. The idea that the 1967 lines provide the basis for the borders between Israel and Palestine in a two-state deal is one of those anchors. Kerry, fortunately, seems to understand this fact — and grasp that other issues cannot be allowed to crowd out the territorial dimension.

Focusing on territory is not going to be easy. If talks do get underway, expect Netanyahu to throw obstacles in the way of a real discussion on the issue by trying to change the subject. Even a generous interpretation of Netanyahu’s position on territory would fall far short of what is needed for a politically acceptable and viable Palestinian state, and the Israeli leader does not want his unreasonable and maximalist position to be exposed either abroad or at home (where the politics may not actually be with him).

Netanyahu’s territorial appetite — which envisions an enlarged Jerusalem and Israel’s refusal to withdraw from settlements or the Jordan Valley — simply leaves no room for a Palestinian state. He has never accepted the 1967 lines as the basis for talks, and none of his three governments have ever adopted two-states as official policy. The same is true for his Likud Party.

Kerry must find a way around Netanyahu’s obstructionism. One option is to place other issues in parallel tracks, a move the secretary of state already seems to be making. Economic improvements, while of obvious importance, cannot substitute for de-occupation and should remain a separate negotiation now headed by Quartet Representative Tony Blair. Security can also not be allowed to derail the territorial issue — and here Kerry has tasked Gen. John Allen with leading what is mostly a U.S.-Israeli bilateral track to address security concerns.

Kerry has also put a regional support structure in place, helping to revive the Arab Peace Initiative by twice meeting with representatives of Arab states. This work has already paid off, with the Arab group endorsing the idea of allowing agreed land swaps to the 1967 lines. The secretary of state must continue to avoid the failed approach tried by former envoy George Mitchell, who prodded Arab states to take incremental steps to normalize relations with Israel before de-occupation was secured.

This all represents a smart start by Kerry. The one area in which Netanyahu currently appears to be successfully distracting U.S. efforts is the push to frontload Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state of Israel. It might sound reasonable — but it is a red herring absent an Israeli willingness to address Palestinian history and narratives, and the current structural discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel itself.

Kerry’s effort will stand or fall on his ability to drag Netanyahu to a moment of truth on the territorial issue. Unhelpful suggestions for interim agreements and provisional borders must not be allowed to distract from that: If faced with a choice, the prime minister will likely be exposed as a naysayer — but the Israeli public might just say yes in spite of him.

Europe is helping by ending Israeli impunity over settlements

Even with the most rosy-eyed analysis, Kerry’s path is strewn with difficulties. Not least among his challenges will be the past Israeli experience that there are no consequences for saying "no," and that peace talks provide an ideal cover for misbehavior in the occupied territories.

Kerry must disabuse Israel’s political leadership of this notion. Many Israeli politicians claim that any pressure is counterproductive and negatively impacts peace efforts. Well, they would say that. But not only is it an obviously self-serving argument, it is also wrong. Israeli centrist politicians constantly warn the public that absent peace, Israel will pay a price as the international community imposes penalties on it — and they are constantly proven wrong. If the Israeli public perceives that equation to be shifting and impunity to be challenged then enough voters might prioritize the Palestinian issue and empower the pro-two state camp.

That appeared to start happening last week when Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy coincided with new EU guidelines prohibiting funding for settlement-based entities. While the actual euros heading to the settlements are insignificant, the issue caused a stir because it seemed to presage a tipping point in the erosion of Israeli impunity. Contrary to the Israeli government’s claims, it turned out there were consequences for ignoring the international consensus against the settlement enterprise. And the news from Europe appeared to cement, not collapse, Kerry’s mission to renew talks.

The current U.S. peace push will probably only stand a chance if Israel faces real consequences for its continued occupation. As long as the paradigm is two states for two peoples, any punitive measure should be rooted in a distinction between Israel proper and the occupation.

That means peace talks themselves must not be rewarded this time around by deferring actions that create consequences for continued occupation and settlement growth. Those should continue in parallel to talks and should only be put in abeyance when Israel produces real deliverables on de-occupation. The past week has offered a glimpse of a meaningful European role in this process, and a constructive division of labor between the United States and Europe.

Even if he fails, Kerry can make lemonade from lemons

Kerry’s intense engagement, even if it fails to produce a breakthrough, may still be the best option currently available for both Israelis and Palestinians. On the Israeli side, the government is instinctively pro-settler, and populated by settlers themselves in key positions, such as the Housing and Construction Ministry. It is probably best restrained by the baby-sitting that Kerry and his team have conducted.

On the Palestinian side, it is quite clear that the current leadership has no game plan going forward — not even in its push for recognition at the United Nations. There is no new strategic initiative on the cusp of being launched, the opportunity costs for resumed negotiations are minimal, and reconciliation with Hamas is not in the cards. The promising civil society campaigns that have emerged in recent years need more time to accumulate experience and to drive political change, while renewed U.S. attention also helps prevent more bloodshed in Gaza.

These secondary causes of Kerry’s involvement in Israel and Palestine might be something less than a full-fledged peace agreement — but they’re not nothing. If the end result of the secretary of state’s intense diplomacy is to prevent further deterioration — if all he has to work with is lemons, in other words — then don’t disparage the resulting lemonade.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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