Mustering Optimism for Kerry's Middle East Peace Talks

Inside-the-beltway cynicism about John Kerry's effort is unfounded.

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I'm having trouble summoning the requisite inside-the-Beltway cynicism at Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement today that Israelis and Palestinians have agreed on the outline of renewed peace talks, and that he will be inviting Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat to open talks in Washington.

Sure, I know all the reasons, and thanks, Twitter, for reminding me: there's "nothing new" in Kerry's approach; "neither side is hurting enough to make a deal"; the status quo is "stable," while peace talks will bring "spoiler attempts to gin up violence." Most of this analysis I even agree with. But it is answering the wrong question. Here's where I start, instead:

Political establishments in Israel and Palestine need a shakeup and a reason to look at the contested issues differently: By significant margins, publics on both sides say they favor a land-for-peace, two-state solution – and they don't believe it will happen. Which is to say, they don't believe the other side or their own government can deliver. An anonymous Israeli official actually put this into words for Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen: "We actually want the talks and we want a deal – which doesn't mean we'll necessarily do what it takes to secure one."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

That's a belief that will have to be challenged. In different ways, governments on both sides face crises of legitimacy. The stakes are high here – Palestinians have got to be able to deliver for discontented citizens, and Israelis will have to show a security-complacent public that moving out of its comfort zone would be worth it.

Washington will benefit regionally from making the effort: We are just two months away from the next U.N. General Assembly, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that, if talks don't resume, his government will make new efforts to gain international recognition. This week's European Union decision to adopt guidelines affirming that the West Bank is not part of Israel highlights expectations that Israel, and its U.S. defenders, will face tough opposition in opposing Abbas. Whatever one's views on this exercise, it bleeds U.S. focus and credibility, and is worth avoiding.

What is more, between violence in Iraq, events in Egypt and the disappointing results of efforts to both get a political process on track and provide military aid to rebels in Syria, Washington's standing with Arab public opinion is taking a beating. Kerry's efforts to date are no miracle cure, but his international critics should remember that they asked Washington to get back involved in pushing the peace process … and Kerry answered.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the U.S. Discourage Israel From Attacking Iran?]

When the current "stable" status quo ends, it will bring a great deal of violence – and it may well take the two-state solution with it: There is an eerie calm over Israel and the West Bank today, unless you sit on the Syrian border, in range of Gaza rockets or in a Bedouin encampment. But even the most ardent Israeli boosters of "Start-Up Nation," when asked where stability and peace will come from in the long run, trail off into silence. Journalists spout clichés about Israelis' famed resilience and adaptability. Palestinian elders agonize about the growing rejectionism of their children. Spots on exchange and citizen diplomacy programs go unclaimed.

So don't misread this as easy optimism. Aaron David Miller reminds that "nobody ever lost money betting against Arab-Israeli peace." But both sides must consider what is likely ahead: free-flowing weapons, chaos and extremist violence in Syria; uncertainty at best in the Sinai and Egypt; challenges to Palestine's Fatah movement from Hamas, and to Hamas from groups more violent and extreme; European public opinion that is increasingly unhappy with Israel and significant swathes of American politics that are increasingly "done" with the Middle East, if not with international security engagements overall.

Steps toward a peace agreement could be solid counters to all those trends, as well as easing some Israeli worries in the event of heightened tensions or conflict with Iran. Shmuel Rosner argued this week that such a counter-intuitive strategy might appeal to Netanyahu as a way of dealing with his fractious coalition, in which he is increasingly isolated.

In sum, it's not up to John Kerry alone to determine on which side of the visionary/fool's errand divide this quest ultimately lands. Since its success, against great odds, would be such a boon for both sides and the United States, I'm going to practice exercising my measured optimism muscle.

Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

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