Today's invitation to Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace negotiations ends twenty months of painstaking efforts by the Obama administration to get the two sides to talk. The difficulty of getting them to the table, despite nearly two decades of negotiations, illustrates the lack of enthusiasm with which Palestinians and Israelis approach such talks. Clearly, the administration and the international Quartet--the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations--feel more urgency than the parties themselves.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas enter these talks from dramatically different points of departure and with little chemistry between them, despite negotiating agreements during Netanyahu's first term in the late 1990s.
Indeed, the two leaders are literally singing from different song sheets--Abbas will enter talks based on the Quartet statement calling for "a settlement that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state." Netanyahu will come to Washington in response to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for negotiations "without preconditions."
Second, absent from Israeli-Palestinian relations is the slightest modicum of trust. The Second Intifada of 2001-2003 killed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians as well as the sense for most that peace is even possible, however desirable. That popular skepticism severely constrains the negotiators' abilities to make concessions.
Third, neither the Quartet nor the Obama administration today addressed the third rail issue of the Israeli settlement moratorium, due to expire on September 26. The Quartet instead euphemistically called for parties to refrain from provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric. Netanyahu has said that he cannot agree to the moratorium's renewal in September, and it is hard to see how Abbas can stay in negotiations without it.
While the administration's timetable faces myriad challenges, there are ways to improve the chances of success.
First, public expectations must be kept in check. Inviting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the White House to relaunch the talks and setting a one-year goal for concluding negotiations risks raising such expectations. This can be managed by ensuring that the international community understands that one year is an aspirational goal, not a deadline, and by demonstrating the benefits of peace through immediate progress on the ground. This means devoting even greater attention to building Palestinian state institutions and ensuring security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
At the same time, Obama must infuse the process with a real sense of hope. He must overcome the peace-process fatigue from which both Israelis and Palestinians suffer. He must convince the Israeli people that their security will be ensured even as they relinquish territories, while convincing Palestinians that their state will emerge and the occupation end if they negotiate peace and an end of conflict with Israel.
The challenge of making progress in negotiations for the United States will require not only devoting considerable effort, but reaching out through tireless public diplomacy and making the case to the peoples of the Middle East. Peace will require real leadership in the negotiations. But it will only be truly possible if Middle Easterners are convinced that peace is attainable and will deliver the security and justice they have long sought.