U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has dedicated enormous amounts of time to getting the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The last serious negotiations took place toward the end of the Bush administration, and failed when the Palestine Liberation Organization rejected a remarkable offer from then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. An attempt to get negotiations started was made by the Obama administration on September 1, 2010, but after a round of talks in Washington things broke down very quickly.
In my view, the problem has been the imposition of preconditions by the Palestinian side, including the demand for a total construction freeze in settlements and in Jerusalem. Here the Obama administration deserves mention as well, because its adoption of the demand for a total freeze put PLO Chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a corner: He could not demand less than the Americans, then led by George Mitchell and Hillary Clinton, were demanding.
Because neither the Israelis or Palestinians want to get blamed by Kerry or the United States for blocking talks, Kerry may well "succeed:" That is, he may get talks started. This may not happen at the top level of Abbas and Netanyahu, but serious talks can be held a level or two down.
I put quotation marks around "succeed" because the goal, after all, is not getting them to the table; it is getting an agreement. Some good is done by getting a negotiation started, of course. It may calm the situation in the West Bank for a while -- if, and only if, it is accompanied by moves that make life easier there. Here the Kerry efforts on the economic side are a very good adjunct to his diplomatic activities. If talks continue for several months, we may get through the U.N. General Assembly this fall without a huge Palestinian diplomatic effort against Israel at the U.N. and other international bodies -- especially in U.N. agencies whose admission of "Palestine" to membership would trigger a freeze on American payments (as has happened in UNESCO).
On the down side, a collapse of talks could create additional tensions. Presumably both sides, and Kerry, know this and would seek to avoid a sudden collapse if talks began.
But what has been and remains mysterious to me is why Kerry thinks progress will be made on final status issues if and when he manages to get talks started. What's new here that would lead to such optimism? All that is new in the region -- from tensions between Hamas and Fatah that make concessions tougher for Abbas to troubles inside Likud that pressure Netanyahu against concessions, to the situations in Lebanon and Jordan, the amazing levels of violence in Syria and the current instability in Egypt -- suggests that making peace will be harder, not easier, than in the past when attempts all ultimately failed.
There is a viewpoint that the two sides are "an inch apart" and just a bit of serious negotiating will bridge the gap, but that has always seemed like nonsense to me (and I discuss this in detail in my recent book, "Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict"). An inch apart on the many Israeli security demands, such as control of the Palestinian air space and electromagnetic spectrum and of the Jordan Valley? An inch apart on Jerusalem itself, which great numbers of Israelis do not wish to see divided ever again but which most Palestinians demand at least significant parts of as their capital? An inch apart on the "refugee" issue -- when Palestinian leaders have never told their own people that there will be no "right of return" and that Palestinian "refugees" will never go to Israel? To the extent that "everyone knows what an agreement would look like," both Israeli and Palestinian leaders and populations have for decades rejected those terms.
One can be an optimist about whether Kerry will be able to get talks started and a pessimist about whether those talks will go anywhere. And that's my view.