Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He served as a Middle East analyst, adviser and negotiator for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state from 1978 to 2003.
Having analyzed and worked on the Arab-Israeli peace process for more than 40 years, my initial reaction to Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s success in getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume talks was predictably negative: He may get them to the negotiating table, but he cannot keep them there, let alone reach an agreement.
After all, the last time I had a role in this movie — the historic Camp David summit of July 2000 — the circumstances seemed much more propitious than they do now. The cast of characters included an Israeli prime minister who risked more on the big issues than any of his predecessors had, a Palestinian leader who presided over a unified national movement and had the respect of his people, and a committed U.S. president who really cared about the issue. Yet the effort failed, triggering the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in half a century.
This time around, the situation looks even tougher. The gaps between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the core sticking points — such as the fate of Jerusalem and what to do about Palestinian refugees — are galactic. The two leaders don’t trust each other very much and face ferocious domestic politics that prevent them from taking major risks.
So what’s going on here? Why does a smart, savvy U.S. secretary of state with many other burning priorities think he can do what none of his predecessors have done? Is this ego, delusion or just another example of an American administration naively believing that it can broker an end to a historic conflict — much as the George W. Bush administration believed it could transform nations?
Kerry’s peace process could easily implode. But here are five factors that might explain the secretary’s willingness to defy the odds — and why we shouldn’t discount his efforts just yet.
Chaos everywhere else
The Arab awakening may produce democracies over time, but the struggles among Islamists, military forces, elements of old regimes and unorganized liberal movements have so far produced sectarian conflict and bad governance. Syria is convulsing in civil war, Egypt is mired in political dysfunction, and Iraq is wracked by too much violence and not enough democracy.
Yet the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is strangely quiet. No Arab Spring here. Kerry is criticized for focusing on a localized conflict while much of the Middle East unravels. But compared with the risk-to-reward ratio of intervening in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers a safer, and perhaps smarter, bet. Indeed, it’s the one issue in the region where U.S. interests and values coincide with something else: the possibility that U.S. diplomacy might actually make a difference.
Israeli-Palestinian peace is surely not the key to a stable Middle East. But if serious progress were made, and even a partial agreement reached, it would significantly improve America’s image, help protect its interests, defuse a terrible predicament for Israel and facilitate a Palestinian state for an aggrieved people who have suffered without one for far too long.