US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of a “basis” for new talks has found Israelis and Palestinians both weary and wary. Weary from the repeated attempts to find a solution over two decades; wary from the failure of those attempts.
In Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Kerry is dealing with leaders who are profoundly circumspect about the prospects for breakthrough. There are low levels of trust across the table and both face constraints from home. But Kerry’s achievement in simply getting the sides talking again should not be underestimated.
In fact, Kerry has set the bar higher than getting to talks. Not content with the partial agreement on borders and security that President Obama had indicated as an aim for his second term, Kerry announced that the US administration now backs a comprehensive deal —bringing an agreed end to the conflict and the end of all claims between the two sides — within a nine-month time frame.
Three factors might work in his favour. Firstly, low expectations have led to a more muted opposition. While Hamas has denounced Abbas for returning to talks and Netanyahu’s coalition partners are watchful, neither man will have to face significant challenges to his leadership at present.
Secondly, polls show that the Israeli and Palestinian peoples continue to support an agreement. This, combined with the full US engagement, matters to leaders who carefully calibrate their political moves to ensure they have adequate domestic support.
Perhaps most importantly, both leaders now appear to be working on the assumption that there is no better alternative to a negotiated settlement. The Palestinian leadership has apparently shelved plans for further applications for upgraded status at the UN or other bodies, while Netanyahu’s view that an agreement is a “vital strategic interest” for Israel brings him closer to his predecessors Sharon and Olmert than to some in Likud.