Get unlimited digital access to $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Editorial

Israeli-Palestinian talks merit guarded pessimism

It's hardly an exaggeration to describe the long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that reconvened in Washington this week as the pre-nuptial ceremony for an arranged marriage between a reluctant couple who neither like nor trust each other much. The two parties practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the altar, and there's no guarantee they'll stay there long enough to complete their vows.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent several strenuous months prepping the parties to resume negotiations that broke off in 2010, yet the most he was able to get for his trouble was an agreement to talk about future talks. This week's discussions dealt only with procedural issues such as the location, schedule and format of substantive negotiating sessions over the course of the next nine months in the Mideast. The parties said after talks concluded Tuesday that the core issues of the dispute, involving borders, security guarantees, water rights and other matters, will all be on the table, but there is no obvious reason to expect that negotiations that have failed repeatedly in the past will be more successful this time.

Even so, it is a tribute to Mr. Kerry's diplomatic skills that he managed to get the two sides to sit down around the bargaining table at all. Just to accomplish that much, he had to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to free 104 Palestinian prisoners whose release Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had demanded as a condition for resuming negotiations. Many Israelis view the prisoners as terrorists, while Palestinians see them as heroes in their struggle for national liberation.

Given the deep distrust between Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs built up over decades of failed peace initiatives and recurring armed conflict, just wrangling that concession from Mr. Netanyahu represented a breakthrough of sorts — something on the order of a modest dowry given to indicate seriousness of intent. Mr. Abbas, for his part, has put off for now the Palestinians' drive for further recognition by the United Nations. But such quid pro quos are a long way from an agreement for a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side in peace.

The most immediate stumbling block on the path to peace, of course, is that only two members of the complicated trio governing the outcome are even talking to each other. Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, continues to reject any accommodation with Israel even if Mr. Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the West Bank succeeds in reaching an agreement with Mr. Netanyahu's government. It's hard to see how a two-state solution could work if it excludes nearly half the Palestinian population. Moreover, it's likely Hamas would do everything in its power to undermine the talks, including sparking a new intifada in the territories it controls, if it appeared that Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu were trying to seal a deal it opposes. Meanwhile, Israeli settlement building in the West Bank is expected to continue, a development that both sours the atmosphere for peace and makes the logistics of any eventual deal more complicated.

The U.S. has long considered an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement the linchpin of its Middle East policy, a development that could reduce tensions throughout the region. That appears less true today, as many of the most serious threats to Middle East security — such as the conflicts in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, and Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons — are largely independent of the question of statehood for the Palestinians. Even a breakthrough in these talks could leave a region riven by unrest and war.

Perhaps the most compelling rationale for the Obama administration to expend so much effort and political capital right now in the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace is the likelihood that without the talks, things could rapidly get worse. If this process delays the Palestinians' drive for recognition from the United Nations and even moderates Israeli settlement building, it has the potential for staving off a catastrophe at the same time that so many others are flaring throughout the region. Pursuing a final settlement agreement may be a fool's errand, but the alternative is worse.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Why Israel belongs to the Jews
    Why Israel belongs to the Jews

    There can be no question about the centrality of Israel to the Jewish and Christian religions, but the Muslim claim is tenuous to say the least.

  • Making a claim on Israel
    Making a claim on Israel

    G. Jefferson Price's commentary refers to the Arab concern for Palestine ("An odd start to America's romance with Saudi Arabia," Feb. 13). But others have claims to that area. What the Arabs now consider Palestine, Jews call Israel or the Promised Land and Christians call the Holy Land. It...

  • Netanyahu speech: Neither unprecedented nor unwise
    Netanyahu speech: Neither unprecedented nor unwise

    Op-ed writer Frederic Hill ("Netanyahu invitation unwise," Jan. 28) faults House Speaker John Boehner for inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress two weeks before Israeli elections. "Democratic nations usually do not interfere in another country's vote," Mr. Hill says.

  • Congress has right to hear Netanyahu
    Congress has right to hear Netanyahu

    In his commentary ("Boehner's unwise move," Jan. 28), Frederic B. Hill claims it was unwise for House Speaker John Boehner to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak at a joint session of Congress because it shows deference toward him before an Israeli election.

  • Let Netanyahu speak
    Let Netanyahu speak

    I find it necessary to respond to Frederic B. Hill's odious and erroneous op-ed, "Boehner's unwise move" (Jan. 28).

  • Netanyahu needs to address Congress
    Netanyahu needs to address Congress

    Contrary to Frederic B. Hill's assertions ("Netanyahu invitation unwise," Jan. 27) both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner have had little option, considering how the nuclear negotiations with Iran have proceeded.

  • Netanyahu visit: Maybe Congress should delegate all its policy work to foreign leaders
    Netanyahu visit: Maybe Congress should delegate all its policy work to foreign leaders

    Has Speaker John Boehner has a brilliant idea in inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress on the subject of Iran ("Netanyahu invitation unwise," Jan. 27). What else can he do when, apparently, no Republicans in the House have what it takes to address the issue?...

  • What if Obama spoke to Knesset?
    What if Obama spoke to Knesset?

    I wonder how Benjamin Netanyahu would feel if President Barack Obama wrangled an invitation from an opposition Israeli politician to push the Obama-Iran plan in the Knesset without informing the Israeli prime minister ("Israel spy HQ bucking premier, opposing Iran sanctions," Jan. 23). But...