A yawning chasm

The simple answer is that the prospect of achieving peace between Israel and Palestine has not been at the forefront of the minds of most Israelis and Palestinians recently.
The “bigger” issues most Israelis are focused on are the economy and economic inequality, religious intolerance, Syria, Iran, Jordan and Egypt and the inclusion of the ultra-orthodox in the military.  Despite its long history, Israel is a “now” society, if there aren’t buses blowing-up, or rockets being launched from Gaza, the Peace Process, understandably, often takes a backseat to more pressing issues.
If this is the case, what hope is there of any progress coming from these talks?
Historical precedent is certainly of no help. While there has been general progress since the Oslo Accords in 1993, the inability to reach comprehensive agreements at Camp David in 1999 or in September 2008 bodes poorly for this go-round – especially since so many of the same diplomats are involved and both sides have only dug in deeper about many of the core issues. There are intractable positions on Jerusalem; the return of Palestinian refugees; the final borders and dismantling of West Bank settlements; and security arrangements. Not to mention the elephant in the room – Hamas—which has cast such a heavy shadow that any hope of sustainable security is just a glimmer.
Yet, there is some cause for hope. A recent survey by Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows that while strong majorities on both sides are pessimistic about the upcoming talks, majorities on both sides still support an overall two-state solution. The survey data about where Israelis currently stand overall is more than enough to keep Secretary Kerry awake at night – especially with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s promise to bring any deal to a public referendum.
{mosads}The broad outlines of a deal are well known. First, it will start with the creation of an independent Palestinian state with something resembling the 1967 borders (with land swaps to account for the Israeli settlements that will not be dismantled). The deal will require the recognition of Israel by the Palestinian state as well as the larger Arab League. There may also be some kind of internationalization of a few areas of Jerusalem. But this is a time when the trees are more actually important than the forest. The deal hangs on the details, and that is precisely where the parties lack common ground. This is why Kerry’s plan to start talks on a few issues where agreement is actually possible makes sense.
While it is unlikely either party will agree on geography outright, a good place to begin the conversation would be to discuss what the borders (excluding Jerusalem) will look like and what “recognition of Israel” will mean in practical terms. Secretary Kerry’s leverage is economic incentives to push the Palestinians to go farther then they have been willing to go in the past, and he will have to use every bit of leverage he can to keep this process moving.
It is a testament to Kerry’s tireless efforts and the prestige of the United States that talks of any kind are going to start again. Kerry and the Obama Administration are doing the right thing by reengaging in the situation.
President Obama’s March trip to Israel was a necessary step to build trust with the average Israeli. While anyone paying attention to what the president has said since his first campaign knows where he stands on the issue, the Israeli public (due in large part to the media) had a very warped view, but after his visit it now seems to have a positive take on Obama. Kerry’s assumption of the reins at State puts into place a diplomat whom no Israeli will question whether he has Israel’s security in mind, which is essential for Israelis to see.
While the challenges are staggering and there is reason to be pessimistic, a remarkable cover story in The New Republic, sheds some light on why hope exists. The story quotes Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet (and now a leading peace activist) saying: “Netanyahu needs to envision his grandson 40 years from now reading a newspaper about the three great Zionist leaders: Theodor Herzl, who dreamt the state; David Ben Gurion, who built it; and Benjamin Netanyahu, who secured its future as a Jewish democracy.”
Obama believes in building his legacy, and there is no doubt he would justify his Nobel Peace Prize by securing an agreement where all his predecessors have failed. Netanyahu, like most politicians, is also desperate to leave a monumental mark on history.  His brother, Jonathan, killed during the famed Raid on Entebbe to save 100 Jews, is considered a hero in Israel. Netanyahu has the opportunity to literally save the entire country. That’s the kind of hope and promise that will put a stop to the yawning. 

Jacobs is a NYC-based public affairs and public relations consultant and a political partner with the Truman National Security Project.


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