It has begun: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has persuaded the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to engage in direct talks. To induce the Palestinians to come to the table, he put their U.S. aid allotment in play. In addition, the Israeli government has promised to release, in phases, 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners. The commitment itself is being termed a "confidence-building measure," though the last of these people will not actually be freed until nine months from now. We are just at the beginning of the beginning; it is too early to presume to know how it all will end. But Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, has recently been given a boost with the military coup in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood supports Hamas, now suddenly holding a much weaker hand in its long-running competition with Fatah.
Apparently the United States does want a real peace agreement more than the parties do. Under the former peace-processing regime, it was axiomatic that we could not and ought not. But this country has a strategic need, not just an interest, in bringing about a deal Muslims deem fair. A second CENTCOM commander, the recently retired General James Mattis (Marine Corps), has weighed in on the problem. He echoed the view of General David Petraeus from 2010, when he was still on active duty: U.S. security interests in the Muslim world are adversely affected by its bias toward Israel and the humiliation of the Palestinians.
What's in it for Israel to come to the table? Hawks in Congress and the major media never mention the problem of Israel's international isolation. The Obama administration, like others before it, wants to prevent Israel from becoming delegitimized. To be seen negotiating, or at least talking about negotiating, improves its image. The EU has made clear that its considerable support to Israel may not be used in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This has been stated policy for years, but it has now been made more explicit. The Europeans have finally grown impatient, after watching Israel repeatedly destroy Palestinian projects it has funded — helping to underwrite the occupation, to speak plainly. Many EU states are also taking boycott, divestment and sanctions seriously. And the Palestinians have threatened to internationalize the conflict by new moves at the UN General Assembly in the fall. This will not happen now; it is one of the conditions that Kerry apparently extracted from Abbas before even setting the table for talks.
It would be easy to pooh-pooh this as a repetitive exercise in futility, and many have been quick to do so. The images are all too familiar. Again one sees the much stronger party poised to extract concessions from the abjectly weaker one, abetted by a global hegemon with its finger on the scale. The outcome could not be any more transparently pre-cooked. What will be different this time? The asymmetry of power still pertains, like Newton's laws. The atmospherics elicit a Pavlovian response.
And yet.... While Hoovering up commentary before press time, I noticed a post on al-Monitor by a wise man, Akiva Eldar, long-serving Haaretz bureau chief in Washington and a prominent writer (Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements). His analysis provides a reason to believe Kerry is not just conducting a reenactment charade. He is giving Netanyahu a chance to be a hero: the Israeli leader who saved his people from a nuclear holocaust, "removing the heaviest shadow that has loomed over Israel since its foundation." To put a fine point on it, if the core issue of dispute is removed, Tehran will have to stand down and set aside its nuclear ambitions. The Iranians have always claimed, along with the other allies of the Palestinians, that they would accept any "solution" the Palestinian people did.
But why would the Palestinian Authority leadership sign on to a deal that will likely force them, among other things, to accept the separation wall instead of the 1967 armistice line as the border and to give up the prime real estate on which Israel's main settlement blocks have (illegally, by international law) been built? Norman Finkelstein may be of help here. A true believer in a two-state solution, he calls this a "historic moment" and considers Palestinian weakness to be the major factor driving a possible agreement. The Arab world is "shattered" by catastrophes in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Kerry was even able to get the Arab League to meet Israel's key demand, permitting land swaps for territory (illegally) appropriated over the decades by Israel for settlements. Israel has always demanded 9.5 percent of the West Bank, but Yasser Arafat would not concede that much at the Taba talks in winter 2001. Now there is no comparable leader standing in the way of such a concession. Finkelstein has also long argued for taking international law seriously. The EU and the rest of the world seem to be doing just that, making this the last moment for the Palestinians to achieve their state, however imperfect.