Reviving the peace talks at all is a highly impressive achievement. Getting both sides to the table would have been impossible without U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s relentless effort, but if the Obama administration thinks this will change the dynamic in the Middle East, it is mistaken for two reasons. First, the initiative is unlikely to succeed, and second, even if it did, it would have little impact on other more immediately pressing Middle East conflicts.
It’s not that pushing for an Israel-Palestine solution isn’t a worthy cause. It’s that there is a full tray of conflicts in the Middle East that exist independently from the Israel-Palestine question: the growing rifts in Egypt and Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and Iran’s nuclear program. Even Israel and Palestine themselves prioritize many other regional concerns over making any significant progress with each other.
Don’t misunderstand, the chances of success are not zero. But no matter how legacy-defining a lasting breakthrough would be for Obama and Kerry, the odds are incredibly long. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has started and stopped countless times before.
So what are the biggest structural impediments to a deal?
Fatah lacks the legitimacy at home to negotiate and later implement any final agreement with Israel. Hamas’s continuing rejection of the peace process virtually guarantees that any agreement will be met with a violent show of force.
In Israel, left-wing parties have been increasingly marginalized and the public has grown more disenchanted with the peace process. The release of terrorist prisoners and somewhat halted construction in advance, may just be a short-term favor to Kerry that reaffirms the United States’ leverage and importance. It doesn’t suggest Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will do an about-face on years of policy.
The administration is well aware of the huge hurdles that an Israel-Palestine solution faces. So then why is John Kerry forging ahead regardless?
The key lies in the mistaken belief that the Israel-Palestinian conflict remains the linchpin of a dysfunctional Middle East. It is often thought that without fixing this issue, nothing else of deep substance can be solved. Today, this is patently untrue. Peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would not unwind the Iranian nuclear program, mend Syria’s internecine fighting or put Egypt back together again. It wouldn’t keep Iraq from drifting perilously closer to civil war. The Middle East is now filled with relatively independent crises, and few of them have to do with Israel, even if Israel is subject to their effects.
A more cynical possibility? It’s more politically palatable to fail on Israel-Palestine than on anything else. As opposed to Egypt, where the U.S. is torn between the security benefits and secularism of the military versus the democratically-elected status of the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel-Palestine is a clearer brokerage deal where, at the least, the United States’ good intentions can’t be questioned.
If Obama’s learned anything over the last two terms, it’s that low expectations are a president’s best friend. They provide room to surprise, or, if things go poorly, to scapegoat. And there is a long and prestigious list of those who have failed on Israel-Palestine before this administration decided to attempt the feat.