The Obama administration and the other members of the Quartet — the Middle East mediating group that also includes envoys from the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — want to resume direct talks and this past week held a preparatory meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Amman, Jordan. There may be more such meetings, and that is good, because ultimately there will be no peace without negotiations.
But there should also be no illusions about the prospects of a breakthrough any time soon. The psychological gaps between the parties make it hard to resolve their differences and have bedeviled all the work for peace talks over the past few years.
I have been intimately involved in peacemaking efforts over the past 20 years under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Obama, and I know that Abbas and Netanyahu carry the weight of their peoples’ history and mythology, and face enormous political constraints. But those difficulties cannot be a reason to despair and accept a stalemate, particularly when those who reject peace will exploit any impasse to challenge the very idea of a two-state outcome.
While there may be no early breakthrough on holding negotiations, it is possible to overcome the stalemate. One way to do so — and to validate those Palestinian leaders, such as Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who believe in nonviolence and coexistence — is for the Israelis to change the realities on the ground. After all, these Palestinian leaders need to be able to show that their approach is producing a process that will, in time, end the occupation.
What could demonstrate to the Palestinians that the occupation is receding? Examples are not hard to come by. Since the interim agreement of the Oslo process was finalized in 1995, the West Bank has been divided into non-contiguous areas known as A, B and C — with the Palestinians having putative control in Area A and Israel retaining overall responsibility in the two other areas. From the fall of 1995 to the spring of 2002, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) largely stayed out of Area A, which constitutes about 18 percent of the territory and includes all the major cities in the West Bank. According to the Oslo agreements, the Palestinians are to have civil and security responsibility in this area.
But in 2002, at the height of the second intifada and the horrendous suicide bombings that Palestinians were executing in Israel, the IDF began operating in Area A again to try to stop the attacks. Though the intifada ended in 2005 and Palestinian security forces have been generally effective in preventing terror attacks, the IDF still carries out periodic incursions into Palestinian cities to reinforce local security efforts. This grates on Palestinians, reminding them who remains in control.