If you wanted to wager at a London betting shop on success for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that Secretary of State John Kerry convened this week in Washington, you would be entitled to very long odds . . . about the same as a punter might have gotten betting that the new heir to the British throne would be named Billy Bob or Sydney. Nevertheless, Kerry’s diplomatic gamble is worth taking, and there are reality-based reasons to suspect that the conventional wisdom — with it’s a priori assumption that the coming Mideast peace talks can produce only a catastrophic failure — will turn out to be wrong.
The grounds for skepticism are all too familiar. Successive Israeli governments, with indulgence from Washington, have gone so far in promoting settlements on the occupied West Bank that even a conservative Israeli prime minister has to fear the fury of settler zealots who stand to be repatriated within Israel proper in the event of a two-state peace accord. The memory of an Israeli fanatic assassinating Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in 1995 haunts his successors.
Then there are the tangled politics within the two camps. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presides over a coalition government that includes factions bent on expanding settlements or even annexing large parts of the West Bank. Were he to assent to a peace agreement that established a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank, Netanyahu could be sure his coalition of rivals would split apart.
Internecine conflicts in the Palestinian camp appear no less inimical to the chances for a peace agreement. Despite repeated efforts by Saudi and Egyptian governments to facilitate reconciliation between the Fatah movement that rules the West Bank and the Hamas regime in Gaza, the Islamist leaders of Hamas and the aging heirs of Yasser Arafat’s PLO remain at daggers drawn.
While the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships go on spinning in the same parochial circles, however, the world around them has been changing dramatically.
The horrific war in Syria is reshuffling all the region’s cards. The spectacle of Iran and Hezbollah helping Assad kill predominantly Sunni fighters in the Syrian resistance has caused the sundering of ties between the Shiite regime in Tehran and the Sunni Islamist Hamas movement. And now a military coup in Egypt has left Hamas leaders bereft of their Muslim Brotherhood backers in the deposed government of Mohammed Morsi.
So Hamas now has little choice but to seek support from Gulf Arab monarchies that have become obsessed with a perceived threat from Iran. Going by the principle that the enemy of my enemy ought to be my friend, those Gulf Arab regimes have been instrumental in reaffirming the Arab League’s original 2002 offer of peace, security, and normalized relations with Israel once it concludes a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians. Since Hamas leaders have in the past said they could accept a two-state peace accord with Israel if Palestinians approved it in a referendum, a path is open for them to align themselves with the position of all 22 Sunni Arab states. Indeed, Hamas suddenly seems too weak and isolated to do otherwise.
That same Arab League offer provides Israel with a powerful incentive to abandon the project of colonizing large portions of the West Bank, to avoid a gathering storm of international censure and sanctions, and to achieve international legitimacy for a democratic, Jewish-majority state within secure and recognized borders.
The European Union’s recent ban on support for Israeli projects inside the occupied West Bank may have little practical effect. Nonetheless it delivered a stunning message to Israelis, warning them that the European democracies will never accept Israel’s protracted defiance of international law. Even Netanyahu seems to have gotten the message that Israel must choose between peace with the Palestinians or the fate of a pariah state.
What has been too often derided as Kerry’s quixotic quest may instead be seen as a risky but shrewd diplomatic gamble, one that is rooted in a realistic assessment that the Mideast kaleidoscope has been shaken into a new configuration, leading both sides to recognize their mutual need for the coexistence of two states for two peoples between the river and the sea.