The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Baby Steps On Israel/Palestine

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There appears to be some movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue due to the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry late this week. The New York Times is reporting that face-to-face negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians may resume soon pending the release of several Palestinian prisoners by Israel’s government—a deal Kerry apparently reached with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu late Friday night. This agreement, however, is far from set in stone:

But officials who have been briefed on the negotiations, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do otherwise, said the prisoner release — and the larger agreement to resume talks — depends on a vote in the coming days by an Israeli leadership that has been bitterly divided over the issue.

In announcing Friday that Israelis and Palestinians had established “a basis” for resuming direct peace negotiations, Mr. Kerry included a caveat. “If everything goes as expected,” he said, chief negotiators for each side will convene in Washington “within a week or so.”

While some might scoff at these developments as inconsequential, it is on balance good news as far as it goes. All things being equal, the US benefits when Israelis and Palestinians are talking, and the collapse of the peace process when President Clinton turned it into an ‘all or nothing’ choice in the closing months of his presidency was a major setback to US foreign policy. Ever since then, we’ve been trying to recreate what Clinton—who to his credit had brought it along for many years—threw away.

The cold hard truth is that a final peace between the two sides remains very far off. But that doesn’t mean that developing a political framework through negotiations between the two sides is useless. Concessions and agreements can improve living conditions for people in both groups, chip away at the big problems that continue to block a final agreement, and help build the knowledge and trust that could one day be the basis for a final agreement.

But to get to that elusive final agreement, two things have to happen. First, there needs to be a framework that gets the two sides sitting down at the table at all. And then there needs to be a way to keep that framework viable even as it becomes impossible to ignore the reality that the two sides aren’t ready for a final deal. Kerry is getting close to the first, but is still far from the second. We’re glad it’s happening and we applaud the skill that is at work.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from the biggest problem the Middle East currently faces: the metastasizing Sunni-Shiite war, the failure of political and economic development in much of the Arab world, the Iranian nuclear challenge are all bigger issues. But this is still a good step and very much in US interests. It’s also a sign of how much both Netanyahu and President Obama have learned about working with each other since the tumultuous beginning of the administration. The two leaders need each other and both have gotten better at managing the relationship.

[Photo courtesy Getty Images.]

Published on July 20, 2013 3:00 pm