If Secretary of State John Kerry succeeds in his effort to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he will win a Nobel Peace Prize. That’s the only sure bet one can make watching the top American diplomat relentlessly shuttling between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman.
Practically no one believes he will be collecting the prize, though, not Palestinians, not Israelis and not international observers, who can easily list the countless reasons why the two sides are unlikely to reach any significant agreement given today’s realities.
And yet, who wants to give up on the dream of forging peace, at long last, between Israelis and Arabs, between Israelis and Palestinians?
Pessimism is a way to protect oneself against disappointment.
The near-universal doubt — not about holding talks, but about the talks getting anywhere — stems from the domestic realities within each camp, the turbulence affecting the rest of the Middle East and the growing distance separating the Palestinian and Israeli positions five years after talks broke off.
The first obvious obstacle to peace is that the Palestinian side is represented by a party that controls only the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has absolutely no authority over Gaza, where the Islamist group Hamas is in charge and rejects Abbas’ authority; just as it rejects Israel’s right to exist.
So, even if successful, the talks would not resolve the conflict between Israelis and all Palestinians, only some of them. Abbas’ own authority is questionable. His term of office expired years ago. He would not hold power if Israeli forces did not help keep a lid on Hamas in the West Bank. There are other groups, in addition to Hamas, with much to lose if peace were achieved.
In Israel, Netanyahu presides over a coalition where the settler movement, which rejects territorial concessions, is enormously powerful.
With bordering countries, most notably Syria and Egypt, undergoing enormous turmoil, Israel may be reluctant to relinquish territories within artillery distance — within bicycling distance — of the country’s main international airport and major population centers.
Then there is the substance of the dispute. Both sides want Jerusalem for their capital and the prospect of a divided city is, to say the least, unsettling. Israelis believe the conflict will not end unless Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Palestinians adamantly refuse. Palestinians maintain that the descendants of Palestinians who lived on Israel’s territory should have a right to return to Israel. Israelis say that would end the Jewish state, turning it into yet another Arab-majority country.
The differences are enormous, and the common ground is thin. And yet, there are a few important items on the positive side of the scale.
The Israeli people have never given up their wish for peace, and many Palestinians, often a majority, support a two-state solution.
Despite the political muscle of the settlers, Israelis have consistently supported the creation of a Palestinian state and withdrawal from the West Bank. The real obstacle, in their view, is establishing a Palestinian state that will not become a launch pad for attacks, as Gaza has.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who long opposed the two-state solution, is not just going through the motions. He sounds like a convert when he explains why a Palestinian state is crucial to the survival of a Jewish democratic state. If he weren’t sincere, he wouldn’t be explaining so clearly the reasons why it must be done.
In addition, Hamas is weaker than it has been in a long time, now that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been toppled and the Egyptian army is squeezing Gaza. I wouldn’t completely rule out an uprising in Gaza. If Hamas falls, it would be a game-changer.
In addition, the Arab League has promised peace with Israel if a deal is made. That adds to the potential benefits of success for all sides.
The truth is that previous formulas and offers from Israeli leaders — rejected by earlier Palestinian chiefs — found ways to bridge the seemingly insurmountable gaps.
The odds today, however, remain overwhelmingly against success. That brings up the question of what will happen if Kerry fails. Disappointment is extremely dangerous. Failed talks have triggered massive violence in the past. That’s why, ironically, pessimism makes the region safer by tamping down expectations.
Surely, Kerry dreams of that Nobel Prize. It’s the longest of long shots, but also an endeavor that could backfire dangerously. Still, how could we not hope to see him dazzle the skeptics and bring that dream to fruition?