The immediate result of the announced resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks was the setting of a new target date on the Middle Eastern calendar: August 2011. That is when talks on all permanent-status issues, as well as Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's project of building a Palestinian state-in-the-making, are both due to conclude.
Israelis have a complex attitude toward such target dates. On one hand, they discount their importance: "For 17 years we've been talking to the Palestinians and nothing has come of it." On the other, they fear them, warning that they create unrealistic expectations that will not be met and will ultimately lead to a new intifada. These slogans sound good in political debates on the radio, but the reality is more complicated.
Since the Oslo Accords were signed, 17 years have come and gone, but the elusive peace has yet to be achieved. Throughout that period, however, final-status talks took place just twice - once during Ehud Barak's term as prime minister, and once during Ehud Olmert's term. Each round of talks lasted less than a year and yielded an Israeli peace proposal that seemed to be far-reaching.
In both instances, the Palestinian leader rejected it as insufficient. But the results on the ground were different. After Yasser Arafat turned down Barak's proposal at Camp David in the summer of 2000, bloodshed was unleashed. After Mahmoud Abbas rejected Olmert's offer in the summer of 2008, nothing happened. Few people even noticed that such a proposal had been made in the first place.
The difference between the two cases lies not in the fine print of the proposed deals but in the level of expectations. A decade ago, people believed that an agreement was "within touching distance." Two years ago, in contrast, the Olmert-Abbas talks were viewed as a pointless exercise aimed at passing time.
What both cases have in common, however, is that in each, a one-year deadline was announced when the talks were launched. And both times, the parties abided by the timetable: Israeli peace offers were submitted to the Palestinians 10 months after the summits that inaugurated the talks. The concept of target dates turned out to be an effective tool that spurred on the leaders.
Benjamin Netanyahu is entering the third round of final-status negotiations with expectations even lower than they were during Olmert's talks. The prime minister's critics, both in Israel and abroad, say he is pulling the wool over people's eyes and cannot concede even one millimeter to the Palestinians. His past positions, the influence of his father and wife, and the composition of his coalition are used as evidence against him.
But Netanyahu's political situation is much better than Barak's and Olmert's were during their terms, and he is more in need of the American administration's support, due to the growing threat from Iran. Will this be enough to motivate him to strike a deal for a two-state solution, as he promised at the start of his term?
Netanyahu's problem is rooted in the contradictory expectations harbored by both sides. From his standpoint, the establishment of a Palestinian state is supposed to "end the conflict." His Palestinian interlocutors are relying on a statement issued by the Quartet, which said an agreement is meant to end "the occupation that began in 1967." The gap between those two formulations is wide. The Palestinians and the international community want to close the chapter that began with the Six-Day War. Netanyahu, like Barak before him, wants to end the conflict that began decades earlier, and which strikes at the heart of both peoples' self-definitions.
The key element Netanyahu introduced into the process was expanding the agenda by demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as "the state of the Jewish people." The Palestinians steadfastly refused. From their vantage point, the Jews are foreign conquerors who usurped the land and dispossessed its residents.
The disagreement over this issue forebodes problems and difficulties, but it also presents an opportunity. In the expected stalemate between Israel's demand for recognition and the Palestinians' demand for realization of the "right of return," there lies a compromise: Both sides could put aside the symbolic dilemmas and focus on a practical arrangement for dividing the West Bank between two states that will continue to argue over historical narratives and justice in the future.
If Netanyahu survives the thorny issue of a settlement freeze and manages to establish a semblance of trust with Abbas, he can anticipate months of quiet negotiations far from the public eye, at least until next summer's target date. Coincidentally or not, August 2011 is also when Iran will be capable of assembling its first nuclear bomb, according to American intelligence.
There is no doubt: It's going to be interesting here in August 2011.
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