Monday evening saw the latest All-Star team of diplomatic heavyweights sit down to share an evening meal to break the Ramadan fast, and kick off a new round of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a hopeful and collegial atmosphere. Participants included chief cheerleader US Secretary of State John Kerry, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erkat, Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, and Obama's newly appointed Special Envoy, Middle East veteran Martin Indyk.
The resumption of peace talks after a five-year hiatus has engendered strong opinions across the political spectrum. Secretary Kerry, while acknowledging "difficult choices" that will confront both parties, indicated his belief that "doing nothing" would be worse. Others, both hawkish and dovish, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, pro-peace and pro-status quo, have been quick to point out all the times is hasn't worked before. Still others have wasted no time repeating the oft-cited and possibly apocryphal belief of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that "nothing" can happen unless the U.S. President is involved, noting that President Obama has been as reticent as ever regarding his own feelings about Kerry's initiative.
So, will the talks bear fruit? Obviously, nobody knows, although as Time columnist Fareed Zarkaria put it, "no one has ever lost money betting against the Middle East peace process." However, it's worth noting that he believes--as I do--that talks are still worth pursuing, although perhaps for different reasons.
Several years ago, I was an adviser to the Israeli government, at its Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. In this role, my job was almost exclusively about Israel's relationship to the UN and its various mechanisms (in a word: fraught), and not at all about what was happening on the ground in Israel or the Palestinian territories. But it is impossible to serve in such a position and not become enmeshed in peace process politics, through osmosis if nothing else. My core beliefs about the central issues at hand--as a Catholic girl from the Washington D.C. suburbs--remained resolutely middle-of-the-road, although I obviously became much more knowledgeable about certain aspects of the conflict. I do not claim, however, to be an authoritative expert.
It is impossible to have an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without inviting the electronic ire of the commentariat. Nevertheless, I have girded my metaphorical loins against anonymous scorn and invective and will outline my own personal viewpoints on what may be some core themes of the negotiations. In doing so, I will touch upon a laundry list of the dozens of underlying issues which amalgamate to form "the peace process" - and hopefully give some insight into this multi-headed hydra that the negotiators have taken it upon themselves to tackle.
I believe that the blockade of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank are immoral, untenable, and possibly illegal under international law, but no one has yet come up with pragmatic, workable alternatives that would be acceptable to both sides. I believe that other countries which have won disputed territory during armed conflict do not face near-daily questions about their "legitimacy" to exist. I believe that the international community willfully ignores the central tenet that all politics is local, and that berating Israeli leaders for not living up to certain humanitarian ideals is pointless - unless you also provide a way for those leaders to sell the policy to their electorate. The same is true for the Palestinian leadership: many of their young men are imprisoned in Israel on what ordinary Palestinians consider dubious justifications. How can these men's families be convinced to support negotiations?
I believe that the majority of Israelis know someone who was directly affected by the violence and terror of the second Intifada, and that external actors and peace process promoters disregard this fact to their folly. I believe that when European diplomats self-righteously lecture their Israeli counterparts about respecting human rights and international law, they exhibit an amazing lack of self-awareness and employ selective memory about skeletons that exist in their own countries' fairly recent history.
I believe that the majority of Palestinian people live in terribly difficult conditions exacerbated by Israeli policies, that their fundamental human right to a dignified life is eviscerated on a daily basis at border crossings, and that this should weigh heavily on our collective conscience. That being said, I believe that the Palestinians are ill-served by the vocabulary of victimhood and "refugee camps," which invoke visions of tent cities in Somalia, rather than the reality: modern neighborhoods comprised of cheap blocks of flats with limited public services. (Cheap blocks of flats that may be reduced to rubble by Israeli airstrikes during flare-ups in cross-border violence, it must be noted.)
I believe most of all that the Palestinians' collectively benighted status serves as an extremely convenient straw man for the leaders of other countries that may want to distract their populaces' attention from problems at home--and thus the biggest threats to the success of the peace process may not be from people at the negotiating table, but from other countries in the region.
Given the attendant realpolitik complications, history of failure and low expectations, why should the talks go forward? To begin with, the background against which talks are being held is very different than it was five years ago: chaos in Egypt and Syria, an emboldened Turkey, hazy indicators of "moderation" in Iran. Any of these factors could influence the negotiators to make concessions on certain issues. Mainly, though, the talks should take place because they may prove to be fertile breeding ground for the next round of talks, which could have a greater chance of success.
In my considered opinion, the greatest single contributing factor to the success of the peace process will be a new generation of leaders - on both sides. Neither the Israelis or the Palestinians are well-served by their sclerotic leadership. There is something to be said for the involvement of veteran peace processors like Indyk and Erkat, who have the important institutional memory of what has (or more likely hasn't) worked before. And the involvement of Tzipi Livni brings a welcome dose of estrogen to the table in what has always been an overtly macho environment.
But both peoples are in desperate need of a newer, younger generation of leaders who have a memory of something other than an armed struggle for existence, and who may be interested in something other than maintaining their death grip on power. Binyamin Netanayhu hasn't had a new idea since 1996 - in addition to serving as Prime Minster twice, he has held an almost unbroken string of Ministerial appointments. He maintains power by playing to the most extreme elements of his base. The necessity of coalition politics may keep him on his toes, but it makes him focus more on survival than innovation.
Mahmoud Abbas isn't any better - at 78, he is well past retirement age, not to mention serving as President of the Palestinian National Authority under dubious authority after he unilaterally (and apparently indefinitely) extended the 2009 end date of his four-year term. And this is without even mentioning the Hamas-Fatah divide that haunt the talks like a vengeful ghost.
But as in all things, we have to work with the conditions that are presently available, rather than waiting for the ideal circumstances. While the world hopes for new, fresh voices to rise up and provide urgently needed ideas and leadership on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the talks should go forward. Green shoots can appear in the most unexpected places.