It’s hard to find Middle East experts who believe that the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks set to be launched in Washington on Sept. 2 are likely to produce breakthroughs anytime soon.
The pitfalls are obvious: a weak Palestinian leader who doesn’t have a clue how to come to terms with Hamas, which controls Gaza; an Israeli prime minister presiding over a precarious right-of-center coalition and an electorate with good reasons to be wary of new concessions to the Palestinians; an Arab world that more often than not obstructs, not advances a negotiated settlement; and an increasingly belligerent Iran with a vested interest in undercutting U.S.-led peace efforts.
That said, after a 20-month hiatus based largely on the Obama administration’s false step of demanding an Israeli settlement freeze, Washington now has pressed a reluctant Mahmoud Abbas back into the direct negotiations that are the only viable route to the two-state solution he claims to support, and repaired relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a disastrous start.
The obstacles to progress are great, but so are the dangers of allowing the peace process to languish.
In approaching the new talks, administration officials must avoid creating unrealistic expectations. They will face demands to squeeze the Israeli government for more concessions. Recent history suggests such efforts are almost certain to backfire absent significant steps by a Palestinian leadership that has been unwilling to take even basic measures like curbing incitement.
American ideas for bridging gaps and building confidence may be welcome, though an American “plan” for resolving the conflict is likely to suffer the same fate as so many previous schemes offered by well-meaning but naive administrations.
It’s not news that many inductors in the region are negative on the eve of the new talks. And a weak point is the one-year cap placed on the talks, which seems highly unrealistic in tackling such complex and thorny issues. But there are also hopeful signs, including strong economic performance in both Israel and the West Bank. That may give participants the confidence they need to move forward with a peace process that will always be full of risks. At least the first step toward any agreement — getting the parties talking to each other — is at hand.