Secretary of State John Kerry, and now President Barack Obama, are digging in to push the Israelis and Palestinians to settle on the United States' framework agreement. At this point in time, however, both the Israelis and the Palestinians are more content pointing fingers than moving forward, proclaiming that they are willing to compromise but lack a true partner in negotiations. In order for the peace talks to truly progress, President Obama and Secretary Kerry cannot be the only ones putting their reputations on the line: Their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts must recognize that each has a true partner in the other.
Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas proclaim to be the sole leader for peace in the Middle East but warn that the U.S.-led efforts are doomed to failure because of the intransigence of their counterpart. Each holds himself up as the paragon of cooperation while questioning the motives and efforts of the other. Netanyahu pointedly noted that "Israel has been doing its part" while "Palestine ... has not." In a rare interview with The New York Times last month, Abbas claimed to "want to solve my problems directly between the parties" but questioned Netanyahu's commitment: "[If Netanyahu] believes in peace, everything will be easy."
One might be encouraged by the public outpouring of support for the negotiations. In fact, Secretary Kerry should be credited for moving the peace process so far along that it has becoming politically costly for those involved to denounce it. Yet this finger pointing creates another stall mechanism for leaders reluctant to make politically difficult compromises. Neither side wants to make these hard choices, but neither side wants to be blamed by the international community should the talks fall apart. It is the perfect posture to maintain domestic political support and even reap the benefits of attempting to break ground with a rival, but it brings the region no closer to peace.
The Israeli and Palestinian leadership needs to move beyond blaming the other side and start priming their public for a deal. Strong constituencies on each side of Ariel Sharon's concrete wall oppose an agreement in which they must compromise on any single issue. Public portrayals of the negotiating partner as violent and insincere only further polarize these two societies against the difficult choices that may lie ahead. It is no longer enough for Netanyahu and Abbas to say that they want peace. For peace to move forward, they need to acknowledge that both sides are equally invested in the two-state solution if their constituencies are going to accept sacrifice and recognize the legitimacy of their neighbor's claims.
Should Abbas or Netanyahu recognize the reasonableness of the other without the other doing so in kind, he will likely receive severe political backlash at home. Neither leader has reason to believe the other will reciprocate the good-will gesture, leaving them out on a precarious ledge with their domestic bases of authority. The United States should find a way to provide political cover, yet apply sufficient diplomatic pressure, for each to admit to their shared seriousness of purpose and stop the finger-pointing charade.
Why not have them make such a statement in unison? If each side agrees to commit to the American framework agreement, the Kerry team should arrange to stand them at a podium, look each other in the eye, and shake on their shared conviction that the status quo must be changed if their peoples are to know peace. Signing that agreement, the details of which continue appear in the media, not only creates the structure for talks to continue through the end of this year but injects the process with a heretofore unseen acknowledgement that each party is still convinced that U.S.-led talks are the only way forward. It provides the perfect opportunity for such a rift-narrowing gesture.
Secretary Kerry reminded the AIPAC conference on March 3, 2014, in Washington, D.C., that the rough guidelines for an end-of-claims pact are already well-known to all those involved. The U.S. negotiating team strove to include the key interests of all the involved parties into its framework, and it is nearing the moment of truth where both Abbas and Netanyahu will need to affix their names to the agreement and pledge to sincerely continue on in negotiations toward legitimate compromise. Key to this success is pushing both leaders to recognize the other as a legitimate partner for peace.