Last week, the Obama administration announced that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had convinced Israel and the Palestinian Authority to sit down for negotiations for the first time in three years. Kerry announced a goal of working out a comprehensive peace agreement within nine months.
Simply reviving talks at all is a highly impressive achievement. Getting both sides to the table would have been impossible without Kerry's relentless effort, but if the Obama administration thinks this will change the dynamic in the Middle East, it is mistaken for two reasons. First, the initiative is unlikely to succeed, and second, even if it did, it would have little impact on other more immediately pressing Middle East conflicts.
It's not that pushing for an Israel-Palestine solution isn't a valiant cause. It's that there is a full tray of conflicts in the Middle East that exist independently from the Israel-Palestine question: the growing rifts in Egypt or Iraq, the Syrian crisis that has claimed over 100,000 lives, or Iran's nuclear program. Even Israel and Palestine themselves prioritize many other regional concerns over making any significant progress with each other.
Don't misunderstand me, the chances of success are not zero. But no matter how legacy-defining a lasting breakthrough would be for Obama and Kerry, the odds are incredibly long. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has started and stopped countless times before.
So what are the biggest structural impediments to a deal?
Obama's envoy, former Israeli ambassador Martin Indyk, will only be speaking with representatives of Palestinians' Fatah party. Since Hamas' electoral victory in 2006, the territories have been divided into two entities, with Gaza in Hamas' hands and the West Bank under Fatah control. Fatah lacks the legitimacy at home to negotiate and later implement any final agreement with Israel. The exclusion of the more fundamentalist Hamas from the diplomatic process gives Hamas every incentive to undermine any possible deal. If we begin to see substantial progress, expect Hamas to scuttle it with a violent show of force.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, buoyed by a strong economy and relative peace, has little incentive to back down during negotiations. Israel has continued its settlement expansion and flouted its borders as defined in 1967 with relative impunity.
For the last decade or so, left-wing parties have been increasingly marginalized and the public has grown more disenchanted with the peace process. These trends have led to a more uncompromising center-right government that's less interested in negotiating a settlement with the Palestinians. Recently, Israel has released prisoners and somewhat halted settlement construction in advance of the talks, but that may just be a short-term favor to Kerry that reaffirms the United States' leverage and importance. It doesn't suggest Netanyahu is ready to do an about face on years of policy.
The administration is well aware of the huge hurdles that an Israel-Palestine solution faces. So then why is John Kerry forging ahead regardless?
The key lies in the mistaken belief that the Israel-Palestinian conflict remains the linchpin of a dysfunctional Middle East. As the thinking goes, without fixing this issue, nothing else of deep substance can be solved. Today, this is patently untrue. Peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would not unwind the Iranian nuclear program, mend Syria's sectarian hellscape, or put Egypt back together again. It wouldn't keep Iraq from drifting perilously closer to civil war. The Middle East is now filled with relatively independent crises, and few of them have to do with Israel, even if Israel is subject to their effects.
A more cynical possibility? It's more politically palatable to fail on Israel-Palestine than on anything else. As opposed to Egypt, where the United States is torn between the security benefits and secularism of the military versus the democratically-elected status of the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel-Palestine is a clearer brokerage deal where, at the least, the United States' good intentions can't be questioned.
If Obama's learned anything over the last two terms, it's that low expectations are a president's best friend. They provide room to surprise, or, if things go poorly, room to scapegoat. And there is a long and prestigious list of those who have failed on Israel-Palestine before this administration decided to attempt the feat.
In getting the Israelis and Palestinians to the table, something that was a complete non-starter at the beginning of the year, John Kerry has demonstrated his remarkable savvy as a diplomat. That's all the more reason it's a pity that the talks are unlikely to gain traction, and even if they did, a breakthrough deal still wouldn't douse the conflicts that would burn on throughout the region.© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013.