Friday, July 19, 2013

What Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Will Need To Succeed

This afternoon's announcement of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is welcome news. Even if the coming round of talks fail, the small chance of progress is an improvement over this unsustainable status quo. In this light, US Secretary of State John Kerry deserves considerable credit for locking in a commitment to peace talks from both sides. I noted yesterday that moving two sides to agree to peace talks is a messy and tenuous process. Secretary Kerry's big win today is a testament to his capable leadership as Secretary of State.

That being said, there is still a long road between where things are now and a sustainable peace agreement. It would be presumptuous to nix any prospect of success before the talks even get off the ground. However, there are three factors which pose major obstacles to a successful outcome (Professor Brent Sasley at UT Arlington has a few more):

1) Spoilers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, has already threatened to leave the coalition over the issue of dividing Jerusalem. Settler price tag attacks are also a distinct possibility given that land swaps in the West Bank are on the table. Hamas has flatly rejected the peace talks, calling them futile. A few barrages of rockets on Southern Israel could easily spoil chances for peace should Hamas get antsy over progress towards an agreement. Spoilers have yet to make their move, but they will move. They have done so every other time there have been peace talks. If this time is to be successful, parties to the talks will have to defeat these groups' ability to spoil the agreement.

2) Public Opinion. The negotiations test each side's ability to build public support for the agreement as it will be written. That of course assumes that either side makes an honest effort to negotiate in the first place. Many are doubtful that Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas even want a peace agreement in the first place, pointing to short-term political gain as the true motivation.  At the same time, spoilers on both sides are not lone actors - they are supported by sizable constituencies of Israelis and Palestinians who deeply mistrust the other side. Public opinion among parties to the conflict ranges from passively cynical to actively antagonistic. Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are serious about a peace deal, shaping public opinion presents a major challenge to acceptance of the plan.

3) Pro-Israel community support in Washington. It's odd to list the role of pro-Israel groups in Washington as a potential liability to peace but the relationship between these groups and the Obama administration is extremely important. Despite Secretary Kerry's attempts to rally support for talks from the pro-Israel crowd in a recent AJC speech, most pro-Israel groups were silent in response. Kerry brought about peace talks largely without the support of these organizations. This apathy is not based in ill-intentions but in historically-motivated cynicism similar to what Israelis experience. 

As peace talks move forward, the US and Israel will not always be on the same page. When that happens, the pro-Israel community plays a critical role. Whether it sides with the US in supporting an agreement above short-term concessions or whether the Netanyahu administration is able to coopt the community to relieve US pressure on Israel is a crucial variable.  Given the pluralistic nature of this community, it's not something entirely in either the US' or Israel's control. However, Secretary Kerry must be careful to manage relations with pro-Israel groups well in order to enhance the trust which will be crucial for a sustainable peace in the Middle East. 


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