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Skeptics Could Doom Mideast Peace Talks to Fail

It's easy to be skeptical about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have just begun. It might even be just a little bit fun. Skepticism puts you in with the in crowd - the swelling chorus of progressive pundits who predict that the talks are bound to fail, because Israel wants them to fail. Predicting failure gives you a chance to recount all the Israeli policies that block the path to peace: expanding settlements, maintaining military occupation in the West Bank, economically strangling Gaza, stirring up the fuel that keeps Fatah and Hamas split, and on and on.

All of those charges are generally true and worth repeating at every opportunity, to remind the world what is really going on in the Middle East.  Predicting failure because the talks are sponsored by the U.S. also gives you a chance to remind Americans that their government has given far too much shameful consent to Israeli injustices.  

And no one can prove the skeptics wrong. The talks might indeed turn out to be fruitless. On the other hand, no one can travel into the future and know the outcome for sure. Success is at least a theoretical possibility. So you are free to predict any outcome you like. Before you join the chorus of progressive skeptics, it's a good idea to do a cost-benefit analysis.  

The cost of skepticism may be less obvious than the benefits. But the cost of skepticism is very real, because prophecies of gloom and doom are so easily self-fulfilling. Even if the Palestinian state that could emerge from these talks is far from perfect, it will make life for most Palestinians a lot better than the alternative - another failed peace process followed by another round of Israeli violence, this time very possibly worse than the ones before it. The only way to stop Israeli violence is to get Israel to sign an agreement for a two-state solution. Self-fulfilling prophecies of failure in that effort are the last thing that most Palestinians want or need. 

Progressive have trouble seeing that their prophecies are self-fulfilling because their analyses so often make one big mistake:  They treat the leaders of the nations at the bargaining tables as the only actors in the drama, leaving the American public to be merely an audience to the (supposedly futile) spectacle. If that were true, then the impact the pundits make on the reading public would be irrelevant.

But it's far from true that the public is merely an audience. U.S. public opinion plays a crucial role - very possible the decisive role - in the outcome of the process. The chances for peace do depend ultimately on Israel's willingness to change its policies in the direction of justice. The Israeli government is most unlikely to do that on its own (and in that the skeptical pundits are right).

But the Israeli government is vulnerable to pressure from the Obama administration. And how much pressure the administration applies depends largely on the political climate here at home. Obama and his advisors seem to care genuinely about Middle East peace. But they surely care a lot more about how Democrats fare in this November's election, and the election of 2012. If they think the political price is too high, they won't demand from Israel the concessions needed for peace.

On this issue, as on so many others, the right has created an effective megaphone machine, making it sound as if there's huge public support for the right-wing "pro-Israel" lobby's reactionary views. But on this issue, as on so many others, it's largely an illusion. Only a small number of Americans care strongly about supporting the Israeli right in its bid to block a just peace. For most Americans, the issue ranks far down on their list of priorities, if it's on their political radar screen at all. That's true even for U.S. Jews; only a very small percent of them list Israel as their top concern when they go to the polls.

So a relatively small number of Americans, deeply committed to a just peace and making their views heard loudly, could counterbalance the voice of the right on this issue and create a neutral political playing field, giving the administration a lot more room to maneuver. Progressives who already care deeply about Palestinian rights should be busy rousing their fellow citizens to care, to express their views, to create that counterbalancing voice. That's what progressive politics should always be about: not bemoaning inevitable failure, but building a constituency for success.

The skeptics who simply predict failure encourage public apathy, which would leave the field of public opinion dominated by the right and thus prevent the administration from pressuring the Israelis. That's the surest guarantee of failure. That's why prophecies of doom and gloom are self-fulfilling. That's why the cost of skepticism outweighs the benefit.

What can progressives say to make the chances of success in the peace talks seem realistic? The best place to find solutions is in the very place the skeptics cite as the cause of the problem: Israel and Zionism.  In recent months the Israeli press has been filled with anxiety about what's called the threat of "delegitimization," the growing perception around the world that the Jews have no claim on the land they call Israel and that very idea of a Jewish state should be questioned or outright rejected.

The ultimate fear that haunts Israeli politics is the risk of losing support from the United States, the one nation that guarantees its standing as part of the international community. The American stamp of approval, plus the billions of dollars in aid that flow every year from Washington, gives the Obama administration a significant lever over Israel. As the leading Israeli commentator on U.S. - Israel relations, Shmuel Rosner (who is far from progressive) wrote, if Obama "took a leaf out of the Bush-Baker book in 1991 and signaled that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted, Mr. Netanyahu's domestic support would quickly evaporate."

Knowing that, the Obama administration could lean on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept the kind of peace deal that is widely assumed to be inevitable, along the lines of the Geneva Accord. It's worth noting that on the day the Washington talks commenced, Israel's most popular newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, ran an op-ed by the Israeli and Palestinian directors of the group promoting the Accord, showing how it meets the publicly stated bottom-line demands of both Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

At the same time, Yedioth Aharonoth and other Israeli news outlets gave surprisingly little coverage to the killing of Jews on the West Bank. Such attacks would once have sparked enough Israeli outrage to scuttle peace talks immediately. Now they are seen as inevitable efforts to do just that, but efforts that should be expected and thus discounted. So said Netanyahu, and the Israeli public generally seemed to agree, suggesting that the atmosphere is now more conducive to peace than it used to be.

Although Hamas applauded the attacks, its spokesman Mahmoud al-Zahar denied that they were meant to derail the talks.  In fact he seemed to give the talks a kind of Hamas stamp of approval. "We are not speaking of the liberation of all of Palestine," he said. "The current plan is to liberate the West Bank." If the Palestinian Authority "succeed in doing so, we will give them credit."  That sounds like a de facto acceptance of the fundamental Israeli demand: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, alongside a Palestinian state; the same kind of de facto acceptance that Abbas' Fatah party has already given.

All this and more gives pragmatic reason to think that a settlement is possible. It also suggests that there is room for a Fatah-Hamas accommodation once the Israelis accept a two-state agreement. Indeed the biggest reason for skepticism about success in the new round of talks is not Israeli intransigence. It's the U.S.'s intransigent resistance to including Hamas in the talks, as a keen analysis by Rob Malley and Peter Harling points out. If the Obama administration can break out of the simplistic, dualistic view of the Middle East that it inherited from G. W. Bush's neocons - where there are only "good guys" (those subservient to Washington) and "terrorists" (those supposedly controlled by Iran, including Hamas) - there is a real chance for a just peace.

That's the message progressives should be promoting now, to build a noisy constituency for the fair and reasonable resolution of the conflict that the international community has long ago agreed upon.  Simply bemoaning the difficulties inherent in the process, as if those obstacles are bound to doom the process, only condemns the Palestinian people to years more of occupation and suffering.   


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Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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