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Michael Shtender-Auerbach Headshot
Markus E. Bouillon Headshot

Defining the Endgame of the Peace Process

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Following Secretary of State John Kerry's tenth visit in a year to Jerusalem and Ramallah, speculation is again rife over the state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Kerry held separate, marathon discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but the parties appear united only in their reluctance to negotiate and their eagerness to avoid the blame if the talks fail. Kerry has stated an April 2014 deadline for a final status agreement, but it often seems as if the parties are only negotiating at all because of Kerry's insistence, not out of any belief (or desire) that there will be tangible results. Most observers assume that Kerry's mission is doomed to fail.

Still, Kerry is certainly aware of the history and histrionics of the peace process, as well as the risks of failure, and his persistence despite seeming intransigence underscores the potentially grave consequences of walking away. Indeed, it appears that Kerry is working to maintain the possibility that a two-state solution can be achieved at all -- and he may well be trying to avert a new intifada as well. Even in the face of great challenges, then, the Secretary of State deserves support from all quarters as he presses forward with negotiations.

Admittedly, practical reality often appears to vindicate the skeptics. Squeezed by Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, and the right wing of his own Likud party, Bibi Netanyahu seems loath to risk his chance of becoming Israel's longest-serving Prime Minister in the name of an uncertain peace deal. Israeli settlements continue to grow apace and the Prime Minister has not only pledged that he won't evacuate major settlement blocs but also sworn that he will not handover territory which he dubiously argues could compromise Israel's security. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, levels of violence and attacks against Israeli targets have been on the upswing in recent months and President Abbas remains under pressure from Hamas and other radicals, facing the prospect of a Palestinian spring that could be directed as much against his own leadership as the enduring Israeli occupation. On both sides, it is easier to reiterate long-standing negotiating positions and insist on sacrosanct principles rather than contemplate painful compromises.

Even so, the status quo is unsustainable and has time and again led to ghastly violence: The horrific Al Aqsa intifada had its roots not in the collapse of the Camp David talks, as some have maintained, but rather in the erosion of ordinary Palestinians' hope that the status quo might change. The growth of settlements, increasing restrictions on Palestinian economic and social life, and the failure to reach a final status deal were the underpinnings of the Palestinian uprising in 2000. There is now a serious risk that without real change on the ground, a third intifada could soon erupt.

This gives good reason to keep pressing the parties to accept the framework agreement Kerry is expected to present in the coming weeks. But it also means that even if the parties aren't about to accept the Kerry's draft agreement, presenting the contours of a deal is important in its own right. By spelling out the specific parameters of the two-state solution -- including on difficult issues like Jerusalem, settlements, security, borders, and refugees -- the United States could help begin building popular acceptance for it. When the Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed in September 1993, few Israelis would have contemplated that a final agreement would mean full-fledged statehood and few Palestinians would have expected that a final deal would acknowledge both a Jewish and an Arab homeland in historic Palestine -- with most refugees returning to the Palestinian state. These parameters are now widely, grudgingly accepted, as are the Clinton Parameters on Jerusalem, elements of the Camp David and Taba negotiations, and parts of the Geneva Initiative.

And so Secretary Kerry may well be enough of a realist to appreciate that Israelis and Palestinians are not about to sign on the dotted line he wants to present to them. But if the Obama administration develops the text above the dotted line, it will only be a matter of time until that agreement is signed, even if years need to pass before the two parties can accept it. A detailed blueprint for peace wouldn't quite complete the endgame, but it would define the endgame in important ways and thus help maintain the possibility of a two-state solution until populations on both sides elect leaders that are willing to enact it. That's a political project that's worthy of Kerry's air miles, and of a place in the history books. As such, Mr. Kerry deserves the benefit of doubt -- and full support from both sides of the aisle, from European and other international stakeholders, and from ordinary Israelis and Palestinians who may be skeptical but yearning for peace.

Michael Auerbach is a senior director at the Albright Stonebridge Group and has worked in and on the Middle East in different capacities. Markus E. Bouillon currently serves as special assistant to the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support. As a UN official and academic, he has extensive experience throughout the Middle East region. The views expressed here are their own and not those of their respective organizations.

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