A Washington tenet of Middle East peace negotiating is that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. If Israel and its Arab neighbors are not serious in pushing forward with diplomacy, no amount of U.S. cajoling can achieve a lasting agreement between them. Even a fleeting glance toward the current state of the Middle East leaves many in Washington wondering why, then, has Secretary of State John Kerry chosen this of all times to engage in energetic, high-level diplomacy to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?
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Clearly, the current situation does not favor achieving peace. Both Palestinian and Israeli leaders have scant trust in the other’s intentions, and there is cause to suspect neither may be wrong. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current coalition appears ill-suited for pursuing peace (though other coalitions may be available to him in the future). Palestinian politics—and territory—are as divided as ever, with the power of Fatah seemingly waning and Hamas’s regional stature on the rise.
The broader Middle East, once stagnant-yet-stable with U.S. allies ready to chaperon the peace process, is now undergoing generational upheavals, with a horrific civil war in Syria and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. If ever there was a time when Israel would be unlikely to take security risks, or when the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah would be hesitant to make tough, historic compromises with Israel, it would be now. And after so many attempts to achieve an agreement, each leaving a scar of failure, why would anyone bet on peace?
Moreover, Kerry’s initiative appears to be at odds with the mindset of the White House. President Obama, bruised by his own efforts in 2009, has apparently come to view the issue as a losing prospect for now. According to one report, Obama views Netanyahu, in particular, as “a political coward” who is “captive to the settler lobby” and uninterested in a serious push for peace. As a result, many view Kerry as a “lone ranger” in this effort, holding his cards close to his chest not only from the White House but even within his own State Department.
But Kerry’s motives may not be as naïve as some suggest. Kerry shares a view—more prevalent outside Israel than within it—that “[t]he window for a two-state solution is shutting.” Echoing the opinion of many the international community, Kerry believes that it’s now or never—that the changing conditions on the ground will preclude an agreement in the future. This thinking is commonplace today among many Palestinians as well, especially of the younger generation.
In fact, in terms of how they analyze the current situation, the real disagreement between most Israelis and Palestinians is not on the likelihood of a comprehensive deal today (which neither party views as likely) but on the consequences of a continuation of the status quo.
For many Palestinians (and some Israelis, and Kerry), the two-state solution is on its deathbed, or worse, it may be already unattainable. A combination of settlement activity—as Amos Harel argues—and the political consequences of the failed Oslo process in Palestinian society may have already shut the door on a successfully negotiated final status agreement. Speak to Palestinian supporters of the two-state solution and they seem desperate, almost resigned to the failure of the diplomatic project. Many of them have since moved on, even speaking ominously about a Palestinian adoption of the one-state approach (sometimes dubbed a “solution”).
Speak to Israelis about the putative death of the two-state solution, and many seem less alarmed. For some Israelis, a continuation of the current state of affairs—with minor modifications—is possible (and for opponents of the two-state solution, even desirable). Some contend that there is nothing irreversible about the settlements, beyond the settlement blocs, and the possibility of partition will wait for more favorable conditions.
Most importantly, the threat of a Palestinian demand for one state seems hollow to Israelis. Many of them think they have a unilateral recourse, besides peace, long before one state is imposed upon them. Although the unilateral disengagement from Gaza appears to have failed, a unilateral separation from most of the West Bank is still possible, and, in Israeli eyes, incomparably more favorable to the creation of a Bosnia-Herzegovina of the Middle East.
The burning question lurking behind Kerry’s initiative is therefore not so much about peace, but about what its likely absence will mean. In the short term, there would likely be a renewed Palestinian diplomatic push in international institutions and a continuation of Israeli settlement activity. But in the longer term, can the current trajectory continue without a collapse of the Palestinian Authority or the renewal of violence? It may, but this will require both luck and diplomatic skill. Similarly, will unilateralism, advocated by some in Israel, like Amos Yadlin and Gilead Sher, resurface as a viable option in the face of growing international calls for sanctions and a one-state “solution”?
It is the prospect of these alternatives that drives an improbable—and seemingly out-of-touch—push for renewed negotiations. But the raised expectations produced by the public profile and fanfare of Kerry’s current effort only hurt the modest chances of modest success. The more the initiative can be tailored to the real dangers facing the region today, rather than to the promises of the peace process of old, the better.
Nonetheless, while the execution may be lacking, the diplomatic effort can serve an important purpose in shaping the future of the conflict, if not its resolution. Kerry will probably not produce peace, but U.S. engagement may help yet to limit the damage of non-peace.
Natan Sachs is a Research Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., where he researches Israeli politics, foreign policy and U.S.-Israeli relations. A native of Jerusalem, he holds a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University.