Eleven years ago today, a Hamas cell based in East Jerusalem claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Frank Sinatra Cafe at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The 2002 attack was one of the grisly episodes that marked the Second Intifada; it killed nine people and wounded more than 100.
Wednesday morning, for the first time in Israeli history, the Palestinian flag was openly displayed in the Israeli Knesset building alongside the Star of David. Thirty-three Knesset members met with Palestinian officials, and both sides expressed a cautious optimism and a shared desire for the peace agreement that has long eluded them.
The historical juxtaposition of these two events came as Israeli and Palestinian peace delegations returned home after talks at the White House on Tuesday. At a press conference after the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has visited the region six times since March to push for negotiations, expressed confidence that the sides could achieve a historic settlement in nine months. Undaunted by the conflict's history and by the overwhelmingly pessimistic prognostications of pundits, Kerry said he is convinced the sides could reach an agreement.
The talks may fail; many issues could serve as stumbling blocks. The issue of borders will have to be discussed at length. Land swap arrangements considered fair by both sides will have to be found. These would allow Israel to maintain control of major Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line while compensating the Palestinians with land elsewhere. Right of return issues will require some plan for compensation. Israel will not grant permission to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to migrate back to Israel, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas probably cannot sign off on any agreement that does not at least symbolically respond to the issue.
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Perhaps trickiest of all is Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital and where Israel already maintains its seat of government. There have been suggestions throughout the years of dividing the city in half, with the historic and sacred Old City being placed under international administration. But besides the difficult logistics involved, it will be nearly impossible for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cede any part of Yerushalayim that Israel reclaimed in the 1967 War, especially since Israeli law requires a national referendum on any peace treaty that gives away part of Jerusalem. And it will be equally hard for Abbas to compromise on Palestinian possession of al-Quds.
Internal disagreements afflict each side. Netanyahu is the leader of the right-wing Likud party, which on the whole opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. The Labor Party has indicated that it would join the governing coalition if it would spur the signing of a peace treaty, so Netanyahu does not necessarily need to worry about losing his premiership. But Netanyahu has already absorbed a considerable amount of criticism for the prisoner release his Cabinet authorized Sunday to satisfy a Palestinian precondition to negotiations. The Israeli paper Maariv reported Wednesday that to keep Jewish Home in the coalition, Netanyahu had agreed to approve thousands of new settlement units in the West Bank. As negotiations progress, Netanyahu will maneuver in an increasingly narrow political space.
Outcome aside, however, Netanyahu has little to lose. If negotiations succeed, he will go down in history as the prime minister who was able to make peace (though there are many in Israel who would vilify him for it). If they fail, he can at least say that he used the effort to maintain a healthy relationship with the United States, and he can then move forward approving settlements in the West Bank and pursuing a strain of Israeli ideology that seeks to retake Judea and Samaria and restore Biblical Israel. Further, a failure would delegitimize Netanyahu's old political rival Tzipi Livni.
Abbas faces his own share of internal discord. The memory of Yasser Arafat continues to serve as a powerful symbol of resistance for Palestinians, and this affects the ability to move toward an agreement. The fact that Abbas is not even the recognized leader of the Palestinians — Hamas controls the Gaza Strip — points to the critical role resistance plays in the minds of Palestinians. Abbas' hesitation was one of the reasons Kerry had to visit the region six times before he could convince both sides to agree to the talks. Abbas either did not want to engage in negotiations, needed to give the impression that he was being forced into the talks or felt he did not have the requisite backing from Fatah or the Palestinian Authority.
It should also be noted that among Palestinians, Fatah has come to be considered weak, corrupt and inefficient as a result of its failure to achieve Palestinian self-determination through diplomatic channels. There is a growing disconnect between the old and the young, and there are real questions about whether Fatah would be able to govern the West Bank.
Despite these obstacles, Kerry's confidence should also give us pause. Neither he nor U.S. President Barack Obama is crazy or dimwitted. They see a legitimate chance for a comprehensive peace agreement that would secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and it behooves us to consider why.
Since 1979, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty has defined the geopolitical dynamics of the region. But the aftereffects of the so-called Arab Spring have significantly altered the framework. Israel looks to its southern border and sees an unstable Egypt, one whose actions it cannot predict and upon which it cannot rely. To the north, Syria is in shambles as civil war rages and creates room for jihadists to operate. Hezbollah has been drawn into the fray and has thus focused its attention away from Israel. But that civil war will not go on forever, and eventually a new power arrangement will define itself in the north, creating unpredictability for Israel. And while the Hashemite Kingdom still controls Jordan, Israel cannot assume that will continue to be the case. A Palestinian state in the West Bank will not alter the region's deteriorating trend-line, but it will create one less variable for Israel to worry about and could develop into something of a stabilizing force.
That Israel must view its security considerations differently does not guarantee a meaningful pursuit of peace with the Palestinians. It simply makes Israel more amenable to what has from the beginning been an American initiative. The United States looks at the region and sees it in flux, as if it is between old and new paradigms. Washington is therefore trying to build its influence in the region by solidifying its partnerships. Maintaining a relationship with the Egyptian military while supplying weapons to Syrian rebels, forcing a lukewarm reconciliation of sorts between Turkey and Israel and now seeking to end a conflict that has polarized the region since 1948 are all parts of that push.
On the Palestinian side, the older generation of Fatah, of which Abbas is a part, may be ready to see a Palestinian state come to fruition in its lifetime. Meanwhile, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt has temporarily weakened Hamas, Fatah's internal political rival. Rather than work on the old assumption that a comprehensive peace agreement must include Gaza, Fatah may see this as an opportunity to try and paint Hamas as an impotent force incapable of securing any tangible gains for the Palestinian people. If Abbas can extract a deal that is tolerable on the specifics, he could secure something no previous Palestinian leader has: an internationally recognized state. (The United States and others do not currently recognize it as such, despite the U.N. vote in November 2012.) In such a scenario, Gaza would then become an internal Palestinian problem.
None of this is to say that an agreement is imminent, or that Kerry's plan will work. Stratfor wrote Tuesday that it was extremely skeptical of the potential for these talks to succeed, and it is premature to be optimistic about them. Netanyahu will face serious opposition from the right wing in Israel, and memories of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin will likely mark the public dialogue if the Israelis start talking about real concessions. Abbas will have his own security issues to worry about, and he will not be immune from the inevitable blowback from Gaza and from unsympathetic parties in the Fatah-run West Bank.
The last time there was a feeling of genuine optimism around peace talks was the July 2000 Camp David Summit, where Bill Clinton brought then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak together with Arafat and came close to getting both sides to agree to a peace agreement. After those talks collapsed, the Second Intifada erupted, a period during which attacks such as the Hebrew University bombing profoundly affected many who had thought peace was nigh. However genuine the intentions of the actors engaged in talks, the violence of the Second Intifada provides a cautionary reminder of what could happen should the talks fail.
But past history should also not chain the imagination. The old paradigms in the Middle East may not be adequate in assessing the true potential of these negotiations. Independent strategic considerations and sustained U.S. involvement have brought Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. That is about the only thing that can be said with confidence at this point.