A Fool's Errand Worth Pursuing

There are many reasons the Mideast peace negotiations could fail--but no reason not to try

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Brendan McDermid / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, July 25, 2013.

If you were to ask me what international problem is least likely to be resolved in the next few years, I would probably say the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It takes no special insight to be skeptical on this; no one has ever lost money betting against the Middle East peace process. And yet I find myself cheering on Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to revive talks between the two sides.

The case for realism is obvious. The Palestinians are dysfunctional and divided, with Hamas controlling Gaza and still unwilling to make any kind of deal with Israel. For its part, the Israeli public has largely given up on peace, and new political groups--like those led by Naftali Bennett--flatly oppose a two-state solution.

But the situation on the ground is not quite as stuck as it at first seems. There are a number of forces that could push the parties to negotiate seriously. While Israel is thriving, many Israelis are unhappy with the prospect of having to rule over millions of Palestinians in perpetuity. These concerns are heightened by growing efforts to delegitimize Israel--in Europe, on American university campuses and elsewhere. The Palestinian strategy of seeking to gain formal recognition as a state at the U.N. (where there is a standing majority in its favor) could cause Israel problems, since the Palestinians would then have standing in the International Court of Justice and other such venues. Were all else to fail, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas could dissolve the Palestinian Authority as he has threatened to and force Israel to take over the West Bank, sending its soldiers back into refugee camps and taking on the difficult and costly business of occupation.

These forces coincide with a new political dynamic in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself less secure as his party moves to the right. Bennett, one of his crucial allies, has criticized him for even entering into negotiations with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu has the option to create a centrist coalition rather than a right-wing one by trading Bennett's party out for the Labor Party. That might be a more stable base for Netanyahu, as long as he engaged in serious peace talks, which would be Labor's core condition.

On the Palestinian side, the most serious obstacle to peace remains Hamas, but it is in bad shape. After winning elections in 2006 in Gaza (more narrowly than is usually understood), it quickly lost public support. By 2008, a survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center showed that Gaza residents favored its rival Fatah, 40% to 22%. After Israel's three-week invasion of Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, Hamas' popularity rose, but it declined again as the group faced the problems of governance.

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