As the first direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in two years approach, it seems that enthusiasm and hope for a deal decrease again and again. Years of violence, failed talks, and now uneasy calm punctuated by continued settlement growth in the West Bank and confrontations spurred by this growth have led to an environment of grim, limited determination; it seems increasingly that both sides come to the table knowing what they must do, but unwilling, or unable, to actually do it.
In some ways, the situation is ripe for talks. Israelis seem to be growing increasingly uneasy with the settlement enterprise, there is at least tepid (albeit, very tepid) pressure from the White House for a resolution, and today the New York Times reports on the economic growth and emerging political and security stability in the West Bank long demanded by Israeli leaders as necessary for a peace deal.
And yet all of the structural and political obstacles to a two-state solution remain; an extension of even the partial settlement freeze currently in place past the end of this month is in doubt, the political will of Israel’s current leadership is in doubt, and violence from militant groups, disaffected Palestinians, and Israeli settlers could easily disrupt even a fledgling agreement. As the director of the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program and TWN publisher Steve Clemons, and Middle East Task Force directors Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah argued in a media call this afternoon, the local, regional and international stakes are desperately high, and a solution will require serious leadership in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington.
Undoubtedly, though, the hard sell will be Israel. Daniel Levy has an excellent piece on the upcoming talks over at the Huffington Post describing his pessimism, optimism, and pessimism over the prospects for a political solution:
On balance, however, Netanyahu’s actions and statements do not suggest a man standing at the precipice of a bold move to peace and de-occupation. Netanyahu formed an extreme right-wing coalition out of choice not necessity, insisted on those settlement expansion exemption clauses, has refused to enter negotiations with the Palestinians or Syrians on the basis of previously achieved advances, and is insisting on security arrangements, timelines, and unreciprocated and unilateral Palestinian acknowledgement of Israeli claims.
The tantalizing thing that Obama will have to deliver here is an Israeli political yes. A solution cannot be imposed on Israel, clear choices can though be presented. If there is an Israeli yes to real de-occupation gestating somewhere in the Israeli public and body politic, then it is not going to emerge on its own, that much is clear today. If the Israeli yes is there, it is going to take a c-section to bring it out into the world, and the only available surgeon is President Barack Obama.
The U.S. will have to be smart in the content of the plan it is proposing, both sides have rights and need to emerge with dignity, de-occupation will have to be real, and Israel’s legitimate security concerns will have to be met–but not more than that. The context in which the plan is proposed is no less important than its content. The administration will need to remove the mist from its eyes on Palestinian political realities and address those shortcomings. The Palestinians can be allowed or even encouraged to rebuild a unified, inclusive, and capacitated national movement. At the same time, the very real asymmetries between representatives of an occupying power and representatives of an occupied people should be built in to the structure of peacemaking–substituting for unreasonable or unreachable demands on Palestinian capacity where this is needed to advance a two-state outcome. And all of this would be helped not hindered by taking a broader, comprehensive approach to peacemaking and advancing a plan that incorporates Israeli-Syrian, Israeli-Lebanese, and overall Israeli-Arab peace.
To deliver that Israeli yes, the right question will need to be asked–one rooted in guaranteeing Israel’s future, that does not avoid real clarity, real de-occupation and hard choices, one that is well-marketed, and that crucially re-calibrates the incentives and disincentives for Israel of the status quo versus the peace option. When President Obama is ready with that plan and with that message, he should get on a plane and take it directly to the Israeli people. This week might just prove to be a milestone in that journey.
– Andrew Lebovich