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A Fool’s Errand Worth Pursuing

5 minute read
Fareed Zakaria

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.

Hamas is broke. Its support for the Syrian rebels has damaged its ties to its two main patrons, Iran and Syria, who are facing their own problems (sanctions, insurgency). And the new Egyptian government has cracked down with ferocity on smuggling into Gaza. “Even [former Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak did not starve the Gaza Strip,” a Hamas official told the Jerusalem Post. And remember, none of the thorny diplomatic problems–settlements, Jerusalem–involve Gaza. Were the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority to come to an agreement, they could present it to the people on both sides and see if the public at large supports a deal even though some elements within their societies don’t.

I know, i know. The thorny problems are really thorny and have derailed talks in the past. It is easy to see how negotiations could be undermined by the re-emergence of old disagreements, leaving both sides disappointed and bitter. That’s why these negotiations should be conducted out of public view, with no briefings to the press, keeping expectations low.

Choosing to take on this issue might seem a fool’s errand, but there are some practical reasons to pursue it. Unlike with the constant calls for the U.S. to magically stabilize Egypt and stop the slaughter in Syria, this is an issue on which Washington still has enormous leverage, and there is a clear path forward where Kerry’s efforts could yield results. And success, even modest, would genuinely change the atmosphere in the region and in the wider Muslim world.

Since entering office, Kerry has taken on one of the classic duties of the Secretary of State–negotiator in chief. He has pursued whatever diplomatic openings he could find, with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, with Russia over Syria and now with the Middle East peace process. These are by definition long shots and are thus politically risky. I give Kerry credit for using his political capital on them. And I wish him well. But if I had to bet … well, I don’t like losing money.

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