Last month in Jerusalem, I sat in on a small conference organized by the Yesha Council, the central organization of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. A featured speaker was Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home party and minister of economy, who made a simple point: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not solvable.
To underline his point, Bennett spoke of a friend from military service who suffered a shrapnel wound close to his spine -- "near his backside," Bennett said, in a line that immediately made headlines. The doctors told his friend that they could operate, but he'd run a serious risk of paralysis to his lower limbs. Alternatively, the friend could learn to live with an unpleasant but manageable problem.
The medical choice was clear, Bennett said. And the choice facing Israel was clear as well: Rather than try to solve an unsolvable conflict with the Palestinians and risk catastrophe, Israel should opt for limited and practical measures to manage the reality in the West Bank. The death of the two-state solution may be unpleasant for can-do Westerners to acknowledge, he argued, but the depth of the conflict and the number of settlers now living in the West Bank precludes a peace agreement.
It's a good story, but Bennett's parallel is, in fact, wrong. And yet Secretary of State John Kerry's motivation for pushing to revive Middle East peace negotiations was actually similar. Kerry reasoned that if the two-state solution is not achieved soon -- perhaps in the coming two years -- it might never be possible. Soon, in other words, Bennett and others who make the same point would be right.
While hoping for the best, and striving to make it reality, we should also prepare for the worst. While Kerry must lay the groundwork for giving the resumed peace talks the best chance of success, he must also plan for their failure. If the negotiations collapse, there is a danger that people will take the secretary of state at his word and conclude that the door to peace is finally shut. Whatever happens at the negotiating table, Kerry must ensure that he doesn't help convince people that Bennett, after all, was correct.
The risk of failure is real. The Israelis and Palestinians are far apart on the most important issues and, moreover, each of the sides suspects the other has entered the talks with bad intentions. Trust is hard to come by these days in the Holy Land: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only interested in talks for the sake of talks, in order to ease international pressure on Israel. Netanyahu suspects that Abbas, faced with a Palestinian society where most oppose a return to the negotiating table, has entered the talks just to avoid blame for Kerry's failure, and will continue to play the blame game during the negotiations.
The bad news is that they may both be right. Kerry's creative ambiguity, which was necessary to get the talks off the ground, will apparently entail him enunciating terms of reference -- notably referring to the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations. This will permit each side to voice its reservations about these parameters before entering into negotiations. The sides have agreed to disagree, in other words, but they have agreed to do so in the same room.
To avoid the blame game, Kerry seems to have wisely insisted on the secrecy of the talks. Maintaining the discreet nature of the negotiations throughout their duration -- and even if and when they stall -- will help prevent the parties from backsliding into blame attribution. In general, the less hype there is around the talks, the less media frenzy is likely to emerge around their conclusion. The less the United States apportions failure or blame, the less credible the sides' accusations will be.