Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon have written an exhaustively detailed and compulsively readable narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed three months ago for The New Republic. We know how the story ends because it is already history, and most of us are cynical enough now that we knew how it would end before it even began, but it’s a fascinating and suspenseful read all the same because it looked for a while there like some kind of deal actually might have been struck.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas are both capable of being more flexible and reasonable than their detractors realize, and John Kerry made a genuinely serious attempt to get them to make compromises and end the conflict once and for all. He was not going through the motions just for appearances. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is less naïve about all this business than he may have been at the outset.
The Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president can’t negotiate this alone. Each has various factions that must be appeased, some of them more hard-line than others. Getting the two sides to agree on a peace deal remains extraordinarily difficult–even impossible–at the moment, but each side has softened up to an extent. Both made difficult compromises. The Palestinian Authority has come a long way since the days of Yasser Arafat, as has Netanyahu and the Israeli Likud Party. Each is less ideological than before. If you doubt it (and I certainly can’t blame you at this point) read the long The New Republic story. It’s one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read in a year. Birnbaum and Tibon put and extraordinary amount of work into this.
But the two sides are still a long ways apart, and many of the negotiators are resigning in exhaustion. Failing at yet another doomed peace process makes everybody more cynical. Nobody can know how the next attempt will play out in detail, but none of the actors at this point is optimistic.
And that’s without factoring Hamas into the equation, which rejects both negotiations and peace out of hand and vows to wage a decades- or even centuries-long war to the finish. Hamas will gleefully sacrifice a thousand Palestinian lives to kill a few dozen Israelis because its leaders truly believe that if life becomes too precarious and nerve-wracking for Jews in the Middle East that they’ll give up and quit the region forever. It’s a fantastical bloody delusion, but it’s what they believe and they are not going to stop any time soon.
I hate to be too cynical about this myself, but as I’ve said before, the Middle East is a great teacher of pessimism. A few years ago I asked Israeli writer and researcher Hillel Cohen what he expected to see in Jerusalem 50 years in the future. “Some war,” he said, shrugging. “Some peace. Some negotiations. The usual stuff.”