A peculiar if familiar ritual is currently playing itself out in Middle East diplomacy. A concerted push is under way to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, though none of the chief protagonists show any signs of believing they will change anything. We have all been here before, many times over.
If this is the case, then why the great hubbub of activity around such a redundant endeavor? The intentions and strategies behind the activity - in Israel, Egypt, the PLO and the United States - are not entirely on public display. So here is a brief guide to deciphering what they might be.
On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that absent the cloak of legitimacy bestowed by participation in an internationally endorsed peace process, all kinds of undesirable scenarios may start to play out. There may be more questions and recriminations abroad surrounding efforts to maintain, let alone entrench, the occupation, and various third-party actors may start to develop their own independent initiatives.
Ideally, Netanyahu would have preferred an exclusively bottom-up peace process, focused on improving conditions on the ground and postponing discussion of big-ticket items. However, when the Obama administration insisted that improving the daily environment begins with freezing settlements, the prime minister discovered that unanchored permanent-status negotiations might be a cozy comfort zone after all. If history repeats itself, Netanyahu could drag out talks indefinitely. Once negotiating, there is ample opportunity to create diversions, distractions and provocations, with escalating tensions on the border with Gaza being a recent favorite.
There is one caveat: The history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not preordained to repeat itself. The immediate future will largely depend on the Obama administration's approach. For now at least, Netanyahu seems confident that the combination of Obama's political clock (midterms, then reelection), more pressing American priorities, American timidity and internal Palestinian divisions will shield him from having to make hard political choices.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a fervent advocate of resuming negotiations, an unpopular position at home and in the region. The Mubarak regime never gave much weight to its popular, democratic mandate, deploying variations on crude Egyptian nationalism as a legitimizing vehicle as and when necessary - most recently in its World Cup altercation with Algeria and the showdown with Hamas over protecting "national sovereignty" on Egypt's Gaza border.
Increasingly, though, Egypt appears to be entering a new phase of regime-succession obsession. For Mubarak, playing the game of peace broker buys him cover against U.S. pressure for political reforms and freedoms, as well as American support in a future leadership transition. His embrace of Netanyahu's Israel is a necessary part of this, and as a bonus, it buys Mubarak certain security and intelligence protections, which Israel is good at providing. Such is life for a sclerotic regime driven more by familial than national or even political self-interest.
Other regional states are watching or even assenting to Egypt's efforts to pressure the PLO-Fatah leadership to restart talks, without themselves going out on a limb. The more grounded in democracy those states are, the weaker their enthusiasm for the Netanyahu-Mubarak negotiation groundhog day (Exhibit A: democratic Turkey).
The PLO-Fatah leadership, so far at least, has cast itself in the role of skeptical party pooper. Its members know the consequences of another meaningless negotiation process for their national - not to mention party-political - cause. Many outsiders have been surprised, and some impressed, by the determination displayed over the last several months by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in refusing unconditionally to resume talks. Yet that same leadership has not offered an alternative strategy to replace negotiations, nor has it reunified the Palestinian national movement. The PLO-Fatah leaders are viewed by all sides as the weakest link, hence the full-court press currently being applied to them. Should they succumb, they will no doubt have to justify such a move by clinging to whatever political fig leaf they are offered, but that will not shield them from what are likely to be harsh domestic political consequences.
The main wild card in this equation is the Obama administration. Year One combined early engagement and a strong declarative commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace with a frustrating lack of new thinking or political daring from the George Mitchell team, while the president was not personally involved and did not take ownership of the issue. The United States may be satisfied with a convenient and showy re-launch of negotiations, followed by the plodding predictability of process over substance.
President Obama may, however, take seriously his own admonition that this issue matters to American strategic interests. That would translate into U.S. leadership in shaping a breakthrough, preferably with EU and Quartet support, creating real choices and deploying new incentives and disincentives with the parties, notably Israel.
Ultimately, for all the noise and speculation regarding their resumption, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are likely to prove rather inconsequential. Success or failure in achieving de-occupation and two states will depend primarily on the conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, their political calculations, priorities and persistence. And that conversation has barely begun.
Daniel Levy is a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations.
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