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.

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