The Middle East peace process is a lot like a daytime TV soap opera it has repeated the same dramatic formula for two decades and looks set to continue in the same vein, never reaching a denouement. Word from the region ahead of next week's visit by the Obama Administration's special envoy, the retired Senator George Mitchell, is that the U.S. plans to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks on a two-year deadline for the creation of a Palestinian state. That time frame was immediately dismissed as unrealistic by Israel's Foreign Minister. Skeptics might remember that President George W. Bush's 2002 road map to peace envisaged Palestinian statehood and an end to the conflict by 2005.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud parliamentary faction on Monday that he sensed a "change in the atmosphere" that would bring his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, to the table despite Israel's having refused to meet Abbas' and President Obama's demand for a freeze on Israeli construction on land that was conquered in 1967. Abbas hastened to correct that impression in statements on Tuesday, making clear that he won't talk to an Israeli government that continues to build in East Jerusalem or publicly commit to the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations. But the obvious gulf between the positions of the two sides has not deterred the Obama Administration from seeking an immediate resumption of talks; it hopes that getting the Israelis and Palestinians around a table would result in finding a formula for sharing the Holy Land they have fought for most of the past century.
No black humor was intended in Monday's statement by the Egyptians that, after two decades of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the peace process ought not be rushed. Cairo was simply cooling expectations. "This is a protracted process and needs patience, clarity and prudence so that the Palestinians do not find themselves in a difficult position," Egypt's Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said on Monday. Translation: The gulf between what the Palestinian leadership needs and what Israel's government is prepared to offer remains too large to bridge; therefore, trying to force both sides to tip their hands could fatally weaken a Palestinian leader who is already politically enfeebled by years of fruitless negotiations. The reasoning appears to be that it may be better to sustain the process than bring it to an unpalatable conclusion.
At the beginning of the 1990s, simply getting the two parties that had spent years trying to kill each another to sit down and talk was a breakthrough. But after two decades of conversation, talking is no longer an indicator of progress toward ending the conflict. As Gheit's comment implies, sitting Netanyahu down with Abbas for "final status" talks risks simply confirming the belief widely held among Abbas aides that no deal is possible with the current Israeli government.
The sobering reality is that Abbas both as President of the Palestinian Authority and in his previous capacity, as Yasser Arafat's chief negotiator declined the best offers of two of Netanyahu's more dovish predecessors, Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. And with the median in Israeli politics having swung steadily to the right, the idea that Netanyahu might offer more than Barak and Olmert did is fanciful. It's not that Abbas is an obstinate man; he simply knows what it will take to sell any peace agreement to his skeptical public. Still, Abbas has staked his political career on negotiations, and that fact will probably prompt him to compromise in order to keep the process going, although not necessarily in order to conclude it.
Netanyahu, by contrast, is under no domestic pressure to make peace with the Palestinians. On the contrary, Israeli society is comfortable with the status quo and skeptical of offering the Palestinians new concessions, much less of risking the civil strife that would be spurred by any attempt to remove settlers from the West Bank. Israeli public opinion prevented Netanyahu from accepting the settlement-freeze demand, and the primary factor that brings him to the negotiating table may simply be the need to stay on side with Washington.
The Obama Administration, for its part, needs a resumption of talks because it has declared Israeli-Palestinian peace a foreign policy priority and has made it a centerpiece of the President's outreach to the Muslim world which remains an important political component of the Administration's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen. Although it failed to get Netanyahu's agreement to a complete settlement freeze, its leverage over Abbas may be sufficient to cajole him back to the table. But it's far from clear how the proposed two years of negotiations can bridge the gaps that remain after two decades of a peace process.
Still, some form of negotiating process will probably resume in the weeks and months ahead if for no other reason than the fact that none of the players would have their interests served by acknowledging that the process as currently defined may be unable to produce a peace agreement.