John Kerry faced nearly universal skepticism when he set out to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after five years of shuttle diplomacy. Now that he has succeeded against all odds, that pessimism will shift to the prospects for an actual agreement. Nobody has ever gone broke betting against Israeli-Palestinian peace—I certainly wouldn’t take even money on the chances this time around—and there remain many obstacles and unanswered questions (Will Hamas and other regional spoilers torpedo the process? Can an Israeli government confront an entrenched settlement enterprise? Are both leaders prepared to make the compromises that will be necessary for an agreement?) And yet, as I argued in my March story on the two-state solution, the basic conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace remain—at least for now—and some of them have begun to seem even more favorable in recent months.
1. John Kerry
Not since James Baker cajoled the Arabs and Israelis to the Madrid Conference in 1991 has a secretary of state invested so much time and political capital in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Kerry made six trips here since being confirmed in January, spending hours on end with Netanyahu and Abbas. It’s a preview of the hands-on involvement we can expect as these talks get underway. Intense American mediation is, of course, not sufficient for peace—the difficult decisions will have to be made by the two leaders—but it is necessary: Virtually no achievement in Arab-Israeli diplomacy over the past 40 years has come but for the involvement of the United States. Should these negotiations become serious, it will take American bridging proposals to seal a deal. And it will take American prestige, money, and potentially military forces (see: Jordan Valley) to guarantee one. If any American can successfully navigate the minefields of the coming process, it is Kerry, who is intimately acquainted with the issues and the personalities (it was the trust he had with both Netanyahu and Abbas that enabled him to overcome their mutual suspicion). Barack Obama already has his Nobel Peace Prize. Kerry seems to view Middle East peace as the key to his.
2. Benjamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu is both a reason for pessimism and optimism. The reasons for the former are obvious to any casual observer of Israeli politics: Bibi is a lifelong hardliner who has long warned of the dangers of Palestinian statehood and has vowed never to make concessions on certain issues (like Jerusalem) that will require them. But it is for those reasons why Netanyahu—and only Netanyahu—can pull a Nixon-to-China (or Sharon-out-of-Gaza) and not only reach an agreement, but implement one. Nobody can read Netanyahu’s mind, but as I wrote recently, there are signs that he may be following in the footsteps of past right-wingers who have come around to the necessity of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians: He is warning of the specter of Israel becoming a binational state. He is reportedly considering territorial concessions that would have once been unthinkable for him.
Getting a peace deal might cost Netanyahu his leadership of Likud, to be sure, but it would virtually ensure the fourth term that he covets. It would do something else: It would ensure greater international support for a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, which—despite the post-Rohani conventional wisdom—remains inevitable (and potentially forthcoming) without a diplomatic solution. I still have grave doubts that Netanyahu will divide Jerusalem and make the other concessions necessary for a deal, but those who dismiss the possibility ignore Israeli history. They also ignore Netanyahu’s history: Since he was first elected in 1996, Bibi has done a number of things he previously said he would never do: respecting the Oslo Accords, withdrawing from most of Hebron, accepting the two-state solution, freeing hundreds of terrorists in a prisoner swap, apologizing to Turkey for the flotilla incident, and now (implicitly) accepting the principle of the 1967 lines as the basis for border discussions.
3. The Israeli coalition
Netanyahu’s current coalition is considerably more conducive to peace than the rightist one he led before the elections. And his appointment of Tzipi Livni, Israel’s leading advocate for the two-state solution, as chief negotiator is an encouraging sign. The coalition seems likely to undergo further changes in the coming months. If Netanyahu offers up substantive concessions, right-wing Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett says he’ll take his party out of the coalition and Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich says she’ll take hers in. The resulting coalition—Likud and three center-left parties—would mean that even were Netanyahu to face opposition to a deal from most of his party’s ministers, he’d have no trouble passing it in his cabinet. A Labor-Jewish Home switch may prove to be the critical juncture, as it will trap Bibi: If he executes the swap and then does not demonstrate seriousness in the talks, Labor will bring down the government. Netanyahu is doubtless aware of this.
4. Israeli public opinion
Perhaps the central paradox of Israeli politics over the past two decades is the fact that more Israelis identify as “right-wing” today than in the nineties, and yet the compromises they are willing to make for peace are far to the left of where they were then. Positions that were considered radical when Ehud Barak adopted them in 2000 (the division of Jerusalem, near-complete withdrawal from the West Bank) are today mainstream, if still controversial. Two December polls commissioned by a peace group, and conducted by two of Israel’s most respected pollsters, showed that some two-thirds of Israelis—including a majority of Likud and Jewish Home (!) voters—would support a peace deal that gave the Palestinians a state on 100 percent of the West Bank (with land swaps) with its capital in East Jerusalem. Few Israelis see peace as a top priority, to be sure. Most of them remain deeply suspicious of the Palestinians and their leaders. And yet there is widespread recognition here that Israeli control of the West Bank (and its 2.5 million Palestinians) does not serve the country’s long-term interests. The new anti-settlement funding guidelines issued last week by the European Union seem likely to reinforce this.
5. The Palestinian leadership
While I have doubts that the Palestinian public is prepared to accept the compromises that will be necessary for a deal, I am confident that Abbas and other Palestinian leaders are ready to make them. There is a common school of thought here, bordering on a conspiracy theory, that Abbas has no interest in a peace deal and that past negotiations have been one giant charade. Most cite Abbas’s 2008 rejection of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching peace offer (though nobody chides Olmert for his “rejection” of Abbas’s earlier map). I interviewed many of the major players on the Israeli and American sides from those talks for my story—from Olmert himself to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—and nobody subscribed to this line of thought. The general consensus was that the Palestinians negotiated in good faith and wanted to reach a deal but that conditions (Olmert’s indictment foremost among them) did not permit one. Indeed, the Palestinians made a number of concessions in 2008, accepting a symbolic right of return and the Israeli annexation of many settlements in the West Bank and Jewish neighborhoods in contested East Jerusalem. Large gaps remained when talks broke off that September, particularly on the extent of land swaps, but Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have signaled that they are ready to meet Israel halfway. “The 1.9 percent [land swap offered by Abbas] is not Koranic or Biblical, and the 6.3 percent of Olmert is not Talmudic,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told me. “So what’s between?” If Netanyahu is serious, we may find out.
6. The Arab League
The recent coup in Egypt might have been bad news for democracy, but it was unambiguously good news for Arab-Israeli peace. The reason is simple: Both sides need full Arab League support for a peace deal, and the prospects of that were iffy when the body’s largest member state was led by a movement that doesn’t recognize the state of Israel. The removal of Morsi means that for now Egypt will resume its role as patron of Palestinian moderates. Abbas, who faces enormous headwinds among a rejectionist Palestinian public, will need the Arab League imprimatur to sell a deal (he may also need its pressure; when he wavered on rejoining talks, Kerry enlisted nine Arab foreign ministers to goad him). Israel also needs the Arabs, because normalization with the entire Arab world—as promised by the Arab League’s 2002 peace initiative—is one of the big selling points of a deal (in one of the aforementioned polls, Israeli support for a peace deal rose to 80 percent when normalization with the Arab world—among other sweeteners—was added to the package).
Israelis often complained that the initiative’s demand for a “full Israeli withdrawal” from occupied territories was a non-starter, so the fact that the League’s recent acceptance of the principle of land swaps—also at Kerry’s behest—is a welcome development. The historic reversal of the Arab League’s stance toward Israel is perhaps the most underappreciated development of the past 15 years; as former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer argued recently, the 2002 initiative was in essence the “victory of Zionism.” Most Arab governments are tired of the conflict with Israel—they have their own problems, and most see Iran as a greater threat to their interests—so one can expect that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other states will do their part to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace (comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace will have to wait for another day, as Israel will never return the Golan Heights to Syria under present circumstances.)
7. There is a deal to be made
There’s a common quip, most recently attributed to Israeli Arab MK Ahmed Tibi, that “the most Netanyahu can offer is less than Abbas can accept,” That is a reasonable prediction, but it should not be treated as prophecy. Make no mistake: There is a deal that—under the right circumstances—could be acceptable to both sides. And its parameters are far clearer than they were in 2000, when Israelis and Palestinians entered the ill-fated Camp David summit with vastly different conceptions of peace (since then, some nongovernmental organizations—the Geneva Initiative; the Baker Institute; the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—have created intriguing virtual agreements). Any deal would almost certainly fall somewhere between where the sides left off in 2008: It would entail a Palestinian state on 100 percent of the West Bank (and Gaza), with a land swap in the 4-percent range to accommodate large Jewish settlements near the Green Line; a division of Jerusalem along ethnic lines, with an international regime for the Old City and its environs; a symbolic return of Palestinian refugees to Israel—somewhere in the tens of thousands—with repatriation and compensation for the rest; and various security provisions, including an international force in the Jordan Valley.
This deal is still workable. It is still politically viable. Whether Netanyahu and Abbas will seize it, we are about to find out.
Ben Birnbaum is a writer based in Jerusalem. He can be reached at BenBirnbaumTNR@gmail.com. Follow him @Ben_Birnbaum.