Barack Obama's administration has been lobbying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab governments hard to return to direct talks with Israel for the first time in several years. That decision could be made as early as Thursday, when the Arab League meets to discuss the matter. But Obama should very careful what he wishes for.
One of the most enduring myths in the lore surrounding Arab-Israeli diplomacy is that direct negotiations provide the key to successful peacemaking.
The actual history of negotiations tells a far different story. Direct talks are often necessary, but have never been sufficient to ensure success. And Benjamin Netanyahu's government, together with the Obama administration, should stop raising expectations and deluding themselves and the rest of us into thinking otherwise.
Israelis and Palestinians will certainly have to negotiate directly and own their peace process, but even with a strong American role -- one that is well thought through and well-timed -- the odds against a conflict-ending accord remain long indeed. The Obama administration should be very careful that in its hurry to get direct talks going, it doesn't spark an Israeli-Palestinian crisis that makes that fact all too painfully clear.
On first glance, the logic of direct negotiations is powerful, if not unassailable. Only through face-to-face talks can trust and confidence be built, problems solved, and decisions made by each side on what price it is willing to pay for an agreement. This is especially true for Israelis and Palestinians when the issues on the table -- Jerusalem, borders, and refugees -- cut to the core of their respective political identities and physical security. The very nature of directness suggests an intimacy and reassurance that is critical to persuading each side that the other is serious.
The only problem with this argument is that there is scant evidence to support it in the history of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Every successful agreement that has endured -- save one -- came not as a result of sustained direct talks but from heavy-duty U.S. mediation. In fact, in each of the three breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli peacemaking -- Henry Kissinger's disengagement agreements following the October 1973 war (1973-75); Jimmy Carter's Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty (1979); and George H.W. Bush's and James Baker's Madrid Peace Conference (1991), there were no sustained direct talks at all. The United States brokered, shuttled, and mediated between the sides.
The only example of direct negotiations actually producing a lasting agreement was the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty (1994) -- and here, circumstances were so unusual, the level of Israeli-Jordanian contacts and confidence so deep, and the issues on the table so much more tractable than the ones we face today, that it was truly the exception to the rule.