Secretary of State John Kerry’s goal of brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority within nine months always looked overly optimistic, since the two sides had not sat down at the negotiating table in years. But it’s a worrisome sign that Kerry has steadily downgraded expectations; instead of a peace deal, the current objective is a “framework” for a deal. Now, as the April deadline looms, US officials are scrambling just to get agreement to extend the talks for another nine months. Even that modest goal is far from certain. But these talks must be saved.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who met with President Obama on Monday, threatened to walk away from the talks if Israel fails to follow through with the release of another batch of Palestinian prisoners, a move that’s wildly unpopular in Israel. US officials are far from certain whether the release will take place, or whether they can keep the talks from collapsing if it doesn’t.
Even with another nine months, there is no guarantee of success. Most members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party openly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, and so far he has shown little willingness to forge the new political alliances to make a peace deal work. Although Netanyahu’s tone has softened considerably, he has done little to prepare the Israeli public for a deal that he probably does not think will come to pass. Meanwhile, many Palestinians feel that they should wait Netanyahu out, in the hopes that they will get better deal from a future Israeli government.
Another huge obstacle is the recent upheaval in the Middle East. The Arab world is painfully divided on a host of issues, from the treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood to the crisis in Syria to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The league had been playing a constructive role but can no longer be counted on to speak with one voice in support of the steps needed to create a Palestinian state.
In the face of all this doom and gloom, Kerry soldiers on, so relentlessly that Israel’s defense minister famously called him “messianic.” As hopeless as this effort might seem, there is value in this kind of sustained personal investment from the secretary of state.
Even if he does not get a peace deal, Kerry’s team can help lay the foundation for a future agreement by identifying and testing creative solutions — for instance, on cooperative security mechanisms and water management — to bridge the gap between the two sides. They can help Israelis understand that resolving the Palestinian issue, rather than continuing the status quo indefinitely, is a core American national security interest. And they can help Palestinians understand that they need to develop greater transparency and accountability in their own institutions, so that Palestinians are capable of governing their own affairs when they finally achieve a state.