Past not a measure for the present Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

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The old paradigms in the Middle East peace process may not be adequate in assessing the potential of the negotiations launched last week, writes Jacob Shapiro.

Jacob Shapiro is the Middle East Analyst for the private intelligence firm Stratfor.

"Eleven years ago, 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, US 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.

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 would be nearly impossible for either side to relinquish part of its claims.

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. Netanyahu has already absorbed a considerable amount of criticism for the prisoner release his Cabinet authorised 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 manoeuvre in an increasingly narrow political space.

Abbas faces his own share of internal discord. The fact that Abbas is not even the recognised leader of the Palestinians – Hamas controls the Gaza Strip – points to the critical role resistance plays in the minds of Palestinians.

Despite these and other 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 after-effects of the so-called Arab Spring have significantly altered the framework. 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 at least 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. Washington is therefore trying to build its influence in the region by solidifying its partnerships. Its push to end a conflict that has polarised the region since 1948 is part 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. Fatah may see this as an opportunity to paint Hamas as an impotent force incapable of securing any tangible gains. If Abbas can extract a deal that is tolerable on the specifics, he could secure something no previous Palestinian leader has: an internationally recognised state. (The United States and others do not currently recognise it as such, despite the UN vote in November 2012.) In such a scenario, Gaza would then become an internal Palestinian problem.

None of this to say is that an agreement is imminent, or that Kerry’s plan will work. Optimism would be premature. Netanyahu will face serious opposition from the right wing in Israel, while Abbas will have his own security issues to worry about.

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 and 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. 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."

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