Pundits left and right are falling over themselves to make what seems to be a no-risk prediction: the Mideast peace talks President Obama has initiated will fail. For almost twenty years success has been elusive in Mideast negotiations, and after the failure of the Clinton talks in 2000 the region has become riveted by war, uprisings, and now the threat of a nuclear Iran. Many on the right are all but begging Israel to strike Iranian nuclear sights, while many on the left want President Obama to dump Israel if it doesn’t change its tune.
It is always darkest before the dawn, and I think that perhaps now the time is right for a major turn around in the Israeli-Palestinian saga. Perhaps a move towards peace is closer than we realize. A few reasons:
A) Only Nixon could go to China. One problem in Israel is the ability of the Israeli hardliners to scuttle efforts by those who want serious negotiations to succeed. Any Hamas attack is turned into a reason why compromise is futile, and emotional themes push Israelis away from reconciliation. Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, has won his credentials as a hard core Israeli hawk. He has constantly opposed negotiations on anything but Israeli terms, and has been harshly critical of doves both in Israel and the US. He is a hero to conservatives in the US who are pro-Israel, steadfastly defending the Jewish state against criticism. He has the “street cred” to deal with the Palestinians, and perhaps create a two state solution. The ground work has be laid by other hawks — Yitzak Rabin, the general hero of the 1967 war who later made peace with the PLO, and Ariel Sharon, the hard core militarist who unilaterally withdrew from the West Bank.
B) Israel needs American support. Israel is concerned about the fact that Iran is likely to become a rival nuclear power in the region. On the one hand, most Israelis recognize Iran is not going to simply attack Israel to destroy the Jewish state — that kind of rhetoric is used to get public support, but they know the Iranian leadership isn’t suicidal. Rather, it alters the regional balance, especially as Iran directly backs Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw (something Israel’s not used to) in the summer of 2006, and could pose serious threats to Israeli security. If the US sets the price of unequivocal support against Iran as working hard towards peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu is likely to see it worth the cost.
C) Arab states want the conflict settled. Most Arab states have resigned themselves to co-existing with Israel. The days of wanting Israel “wiped off the map” are over. In fact, Arabs are more concerned about Iranian power than Israeli power, and the leaders of most Arab states are adamantly opposed to extremist movements that want to disrupt the system. They know that peace in Palestine would undercut the most emotional strain of the radical Islamist movement. Pressure from Arab states (even if they rhetorically remain anti-Israel) will be for compromise from the Palestinian side. They may also offer private assurances to Israel.
D) Palestinian impatience with Hamas. Hamas won elections in Gaza because of widespread anger over corruption and incompetence in the Palestinian Authority. They did not win because of their radical anti-Israeli stance. Most Palestinians are ambivalent about the existence of Israel, they simply want to make a living and have economic opportunity.
Add to that the wane in anti-American sentiment due to the US withdrawal from Iraq (and the lack of headlines of dead Arabs at the hands of western forces) and Palestinian rejection of the radical agenda, and conditions are ripe for a real move towards long term peace. Ironically President Obama, seen by many as having a questionable commitment to Israel, and Benjamin Netanyahu, seen by many as having no desire to reach a two state agreement with the Palestinians, may be poised for a dramatic and unexpected breakthrough in the Mideast. Stay tuned!