No one has persuaded the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down for extended, serious peace talks since September 2008. Then, the Olmert-Abbas negotiations ended with the greatest degree of mutual agreement recorded thus far, yet without enough substance to reach a deal.
That was five years ago; it happened on President George W Bush’s watch and in my view it was the high point of the peace process to date. So the most obvious way to define success in the new talks is the degree to which that seriousness and scope can now be replicated or even surpassed, even if an actual end-of-conflict treaty is not achieved.
Minimalists would suffice with far less to qualify the talks as a success. Secretary of State John Kerry’s achievement in persuading the two sides to talk again is a success. If and when, in Washington sometime soon, they reach an agreed agenda that enables comprehensive, in-depth discussions to take place, that would qualify as another success. Agreement on even one agenda item, such as borders or security, would in the minimalists’ eyes be a resounding success.
Maximalists might only qualify as a success a fully-fledged two-state solution that ends all claims by both sides. Sadly, that is the least likely outcome.
More likely, “success” will be measured, if at all, in incremental gains, such as an interim solution.
Or in a surprise outcome. Suppose, as so frequently happens in this peace process, the end-result of these talks is totally unanticipated and unplanned? Suppose, for example, that as the talks proceed, the substantive gaps between the two sides become increasingly obvious and the Americans intervene with their own far-reaching peace plan and back it up with threats of pressure. Could Netanyahu, confronting a bigger compromise than he can digest, then opt for an abrupt unilateral Israeli withdrawal from a significant part of the West Bank in order to gain time and a measure of quiet for a few years? Would that be considered a success for Kerry?