Will 2014 be a year of peace?
Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas shake hands before Hilary Clinton (Photo: AP)
At a particularly bleak moment during his umpteenth visit to the region this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted: “We’re not talking at this point about any shifts [in the schedule],” and reiterated his belief that Israel and the Palestinians can still reach a peace agreement by April, at the end of the nine-month time-frame he set for the talks.
Despite Mr Kerry’s assurances, the mantra we will increasingly hear in the first few months of 2014 is that April does not have to be the deadline. All those involved will prefer to extend the negotiations rather than admit failure. You could hear something similar already last week in Ramallah when chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a briefing that the April deadline would be sufficient to reach the framework of an agreement but the talks over the actual details could go on for another six or 12 months.
Is there any reason whatsoever to assume that, after decades of attempts, 2014 will be the year in which Israelis and Palestinians actually agree to even the basics of a peace treaty? On the face of it, chances remain slim. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have repeatedly committed himself to the two-state solution but he seems personally reluctant to make any of the major concessions necessary to realise that objective. Moreover, the majority of his party and key elements of his coalition are resolutely opposed.
The Palestinian side seems just as impotent. President Mahmoud Abbas may have said all the right things but he is increasingly weak and lacks legitimacy at home. Plus, a peace agreement — any agreement — will be extremely divisive: a large number of Palestinians keep to demands that no Israeli leader would ever accommodate. Mr Abbas does not seem to have the stomach to push such a deal through.
But despite the well-founded pessimism, there is a window of opportunity in 2014, partly due to external factors.
Mr Kerry is a man with no further political ambitions besides his place in history as a peacemaker and he is backed by a second-term president who is not overly concerned any more by opposition from Congress and an EU eager to assert its influence in the Middle East. Together, they may be capable of exercising the correct combination of pressure and inducements to allow Mr Netanyahu to break with the prevailing mood in his party. Plus, there is a conceivable majority within the Knesset for a deal. The spectre of a new wave of boycotts and even diplomatic isolation could further spur the Israeli leadership.
And while the Palestinian leaders seem immobile on their demands, they also have a lot to lose. Another year without getting any closer to statehood could strip away the last shred of credibility the Palestinian Authority still has in the eyes of its people. Mr Abbas and his colleagues have been watching as the anger of other Arab peoples has swept away entrenched leaders.
Neither side is particularly motivated or excited at the prospect of an agreement — on the contrary, both seem petrified by the very idea. But 2014 could turn out to be the year they finally realise they have no choice left.