Correction: An earlier version of this article misquoted Secretary of State John F. Kerry in his discussion of Israeli settlements. He said the United States “views all the settlements as illegitimate,” not illegal.
A double-barreled announcement by Israel that it will release Palestinian prisoners and build new Jewish housing on land claimed by Palestinians illustrates the possibilities and pitfalls of a tentative new effort at a Mideast peace deal.
Both decisions were in preparation for direct peace talks Wednesday in Israel.
One makes good on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to release long-held Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good faith. The other shows the influence of hard-liners in Netanyahu’s political coalition, who advocate expansion of Jewish settlements and oppose concessions to Palestinians.
If the talks fostered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry have any chance of success, Netanyahu must keep the same precarious balance between mistrustful Palestinians and skeptical Israelis, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must show fast progress or risk the collapse of his domestic political support.
The reasons for pessimism about the prospects for a peace deal are many, starting with the simple fact that every past effort at an accord has failed. But as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators begin their first substantive direct negotiations in years, there are a few reasons that this time might be different.
First, the skepticism.
Kerry’s job as broker and taskmaster looks harder than even he imagined seven months ago, when he made resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks the main effort of his career-capping tenure as the top U.S. diplomat. It took more shuttle diplomacy, more jawboning on the phone and more political capital than Kerry had hoped just to get Netanyahu and Abbas to agree to begin talking.
It bears asking whether, if it was so difficult just to get to the starting line, these guys are ready for the marathon ahead?
Netanyahu is a longtime hawk with no history of peacemaking. The threat of a nuclear Iran has been a much larger concern for Netanyahu than how, or even whether, the Palestinian question is settled.
Abbas is an elder statesman whose moderate politics and willingness to bargain with Israel appear naive or anachronistic to many Palestinians. He holds no control over the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is opposed to peace with Israel, holds power.
The same grim circumstances that doomed past negotiations still apply. Palestinians still demand a portion of Jerusalem as a capital; West Bank borders could be drawn to include some Jewish settlements inside Israel, but not all.
Yet new developments may weigh in favor of a deal.
The agreement to resume talks is partly due to Kerry’s face-to-face intercessions. That could mean that he has real muscle to compel the two sides toward a deal or that both have gone about as far as they intend to go, just by showing up.
The last effort, in 2010, fell apart almost immediately over the question of a settlement freeze.
Kerry said Monday that he does not expect the latest housing announcement to be a “speed bump” that slows talks.
“As the world, I hope, knows, the United States of America views all the settlements as illegitimate,” Kerry said during a diplomatic visit to Colombia. “We have communicated that policy to all of our friends in Israel.”
Israeli leaders are deeply worried that Israel’s reputation is slipping internationally, largely because of the settlements. Netanyahu was rattled last month by European Union guidelines that ban most transactions with Israeli institutions built on territory seized in the 1967 war. Without a deal, many Israelis fear that Palestinians could win backing at the United Nations for efforts to punish Israel.
The Palestinian economy has plunged to new lows, with little hope of improvement unless Israel no longer controls all access to airports, shipping terminals, roads and water. Kerry is offering billions in outside investment tied to progress toward peace.
Arab states, including some of Abbas’s main political backers, have pledged to support a peace deal based on redrawn West Bank borders. That gives Abbas cover that his predecessor Yasser Arafat did not have when he balked at peace terms in 2000.
Kerry has set a nine-month window for talks. The idea is to keep the parties at the table and prevent stalling tactics. Kerry and his new Mideast envoy, Martin Indyk, are also expected to step in with U.S. proposals for some of the most difficult problems. That’s a level of rigor and outside discipline missing from the last major effort at peace, in 2008.
Unlike those high-level talks, the new effort intentionally involves only envoys at first. If there’s progress, the two leaders and President Obama can join later.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators inaugurated talks two weeks ago in Washington. The session in Jerusalem on Wednesday is the promised follow-up, with Indyk on hand. He knows something of what he’s in for.
Last month, before he got the job as U.S. envoy, Indyk cheered Kerry’s hard-won announcement that talks would resume.
“So Kerry did it. By George he did it!” Indyk exulted on Twitter. “Negotiations will resume forthwith. Now watch the naysayers declare there’ll never be an agreement.”