Israeli and Palestinian officials resumed face-to-face talks on Monday for the first time in five years. After six months of shuttle diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry succeeded in bringing the two sides to the table, but the possibility of a final peace agreement remains distant.
Although Kerry surely deserves praise for pushing the two to negotiate, Israel was also driven by recent EU rules that bar financial assistance to Israeli organizations operating in the occupied West Bank. Fearing additional international isolation and possible legal action in the International Criminal Court, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu relented and agreed to the talks.
As part of the preconditions for the negotiations, 104 Palestinian prisoners will be released. Symbolically, this is important for Palestinians, many of whom have imprisoned family members that they view as heroes. All of the released prisoners were arrested before 1994 when the Oslo Accords were signed. To ensure serious negotiations on the Palestinians’ part, Israel will release more prisoners over the next nine months.
Issues of borders and security will be the first issues to get resolved in the 60-year-old conflict. Currently, over 600,000 Israeli settlers reside in the occupied West Bank, presenting a problem for a two-state solution in which Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders. Another point of dispute is how armed the Palestinian military could be or if Israel would continue its military presence in the Jordan River Valley.
However, those two issues are minor compared to the behemoths of the status of Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian refugees. The majority of Israelis refuse to divide Jerusalem, and the majority of Palestinians demand East Jerusalem as their capital. Both sides must eventually agree to a unified city for its administration to function properly. And the final question to resolve is a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Although almost all Palestinians support the “right of return” to their ancestral homes, Israel would resoundingly never consent to such an idea because it would destroy its existence as a Jewish state. Eventually, Palestinians must come to terms that they will not be able to return, but it may be too soon to accept such a fate.
Not only are the gaps on these issues huge, but the political climate is not even ripe for peace. Palestinians remain divided between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank. Hamas opposes these peace talks, which already presents an obstacle to any agreement. Further, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is not very ardent on pushing for a peace process so his government could easily collapse.
However, there does remain a glimmer of hope for Israel to negotiate seriously. Just two years ago, Netanyahu had commissioned a report written by three right-wing ideologues that the West Bank was not "occupied territory."
However, it seems his position has shifted since then. He pressured members of his own party to vote for the release of Palestinian prisoners. Over this year, he has also repaired relations with President Obama and apologized to Turkey over the Gaza flotilla. Nonetheless, this may all be a ploy to warm up relations between Israel and the West in order to later refocus on action against Iran.
With the U.S.’s poor track record in initiating peace processes in the region and an even more antagonistic political climate, it is not bold to conclude these talks will go nowhere. The window on peace is closing fast as settlers continue to confiscate Palestinian land, but it is hard to view these talks as a log that will keep the window from shutting.