Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth. It's hardly surprising, then, that the champagne was kept on ice following Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement that a resumption of talks was imminent.
There are very good reasons to doubt that a revived peace process will deliver a two-state deal, or even much by way of progress. Kerry's statement was rife with uncertainty regarding exactly when the talks would happen, and what agenda they would address. Nor does it help that Israeli government ministers rushed to retake pledges of loyalty to the settlement project, or that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will sit down at the negotiating table without any of the prerequisites he had outlined as the basis for a meaningful process.
The domestic politics of each major player in the peace process also should be a reason for caution. Much of the Israeli cabinet seems to prefer annexation of the Palestinian territories over a two-state outcome, the Palestinians remain politically divided and weak, the major Arab countries remain fixated on instability at home, and the Americans remain politically timid. Yet well-placed caution -- and even pessimism -- should not translate into defeatism, which risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
President Barack Obama's administration deserves credit for having understood from day one the significance of the Israel-Palestine issue for the region, and for how America is perceived there. Even amid so much upheaval, from Syria to Cairo, this issue retains its iconic status and remains an albatross around Washington's neck. Kerry also deserves credit for having taken that commitment to a new level with his personal engagement, visiting the region six times since becoming secretary of state.
Though cynics may say otherwise, there is a value in having overcome the impasse of endless talks about talks and the pre-negotiation blame game. Beyond putting an end to the bizarre spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu playing the role of "The Shunned Suitor of the Palestinians," here are five things this latest attempt to revive the peace process has going for it.
The Kerry urgency factor
The secretary of state seems to have abandoned the ridiculous idea that America cannot want a deal more than the parties themselves. Of course it can: A sustainable Israeli-Palestinian deal is a U.S. national security interest, as every U.S. CENTCOM commander has unequivocally testified since the 9/11 attacks.
Significant forces in Israeli politics, society, and government think that Israel can run out the clock on the two-state option -- and a comparable trend exists on the Palestinian side. Given this reality and American discomfort with the alternatives to two states, it falls to the United States to stand with a stopwatch and inject urgency into the process.
It matters that Kerry is so personally invested and determined in this effort -- and he should remain so, even if additional envoys are appointed. The secretary of state cannot be easily ignored by either side when he engages on the issue, especially since Obama has done just enough to demonstrate his support -- as he did by calling Netanyahu in the middle of talks last Friday.
Kerry's shuttle diplomacy may look old school, but it has gotten us this far. Hipsters might crow about digital diplomacy, but face-to-face talks are far more relevant to this conflict. And Kerry will have to stick to the task: Progress will require an effort mapped out over the remaining 42 months of Obama's second term, allowing time for political change to percolate among the protagonists.
Israeli politics -- not as hopeless as it looks
After winning the January 2013 election, Netanyahu set about forming a coalition with a majority opposed to a two-state outcome. Even if Netanyahu were to entertain an Ariel Sharon-like break with his party over a territorial compromise -- which he has thus far shown no inclination to do -- it is unclear whether more than a handful of his own party members would join him, or that the Israeli political center would defer to his leadership.
But that doesn't mean all is lost. There is very likely a majority within the current Knesset for a two-state deal, made up of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party (19 seats), the ultra-orthodox parties (18), Labor (15), Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah (6), Meretz (6), and Kadima (2), for a total of 66. Many of the 11 members of the Knesset from the ostensibly Palestinian-Arab parties would also be supportive. A "Netanyahu and friends" break to the center could strengthen that majority -- but it can exist without them.
Close observers of the Israeli political scene might scratch their heads at the inclusion of the ultra-orthodox in that potential pro-peace majority. But they'd be wrong to write the Haredim off: They were never great Zionists or settlement proselytizers. In fact, the two big ultra-orthodox settlements hug the Green Line and can easily be accommodated in a land swap; they are currently at loggerheads with the settler right, have supported peace moves in the past, and interpretations of Jewish law provide them cover for agreeing to de-occupation.
The bottom line is this: If there is a moment of truth on a two-state solution, don't assume that Israeli domestic politics will automatically ruin it. But don't expect Netanyahu or the Israeli political system to voluntarily generate that moment.