Negotiators are due to convene with little fanfare later on today in Jerusalem, the holy city at the heart of the decades-old conflict of turf and faith. The envoys held first talks in Washington last month, ending a three-year stand-off. Paving the way for the continuation of negotiations, Israel released an initial number of Palestinians serving long jail terms, many for deadly attacks on Israelis, bussing them in the dead of night to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The fact that bringing the parties back to where they were three years ago is considered a breakthrough is a sign of just how low the bar has dropped. Moreover, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may have succeeded in getting the parties into negotiations it is far less clear that he can keep them there, much less get them out with an agreement.
The two biggest "elephants" in the room relate to the nature of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships themselves. On the one hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presides over what may be the most pro-settlement government in Israel's history, several of whose members openly oppose the creation of Palestinian state. The Israeli government basically ideologically would find it difficult to give the compromises necessary for a two-state solution.
The Palestinians on the other side are not convinced that they will get any solution that would be acceptable by the people. And nothing does more to undermine the Palestinian leadership's domestic credibility than continuing to engage in a negotiation process while Israel persists in colonizing Palestinian land -- which brings us to Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.
Far from the "state in waiting" many Palestinians had once hoped it would be, today's PA is financially bankrupt, has no functioning parliament, and continues to suffer from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The notion that such a divided and dysfunctional leadership, which lacks either electoral or consensual legitimacy, would have a mandate to negotiate the sort of wide-ranging compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require is fanciful at best.
Any negotiation process that ignores these two corrosive issues is virtually assured of failure. And failure always comes with a cost. On that score, the playing field is anything but equal. Whereas U.S. and Israeli leaders would likely live to fight another day, the same cannot be said of the current Palestinian leadership. While expectations on all sides remain palpably low, the Palestinians by and large have come to see the peace process as little more than a fig leaf for Israeli settlement expansion and other forms of unilateralism.
Not surprisingly, Palestinian leaders have been reluctant to openly embrace the announcement of imminent negotiations. The prospect of Abbas returning to the negotiations in the face of continued settlement expansion and at a time of unprecedented national disunity is likely to further erode his credibility in the eyes of Palestinians while handing his Hamas opponents some easy ammunition to use against him.
If there is one lesson to be gleaned from the past two decades of failed negotiations it is that trying and failing can do more damage than not trying at all. Whereas the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000 led directly to several years of violence during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, another failed peace process could spell the end of the current Palestinian leadership as well as the prospect of a two state solution. This does not mean negotiations should be put off indefinitely, as many hardliners now seek, only that they be conducted under conditions that are more conducive to success.
If new negotiations are to have any chance of success, the United States must break with the failed policies of the past, including the continued neglect of Israel's ever-expanding settlement enterprise and the ongoing Palestinian division. Short of this, Kerry can only look forward to the same outcome as his predecessors.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst