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Better Than Expected

Hope springs eternal, but could it be for real this time?

Marc Tracy
September 03, 2010
Yesterday.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Yesterday.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The direct talks in Washington, D.C., ended, and it is safe to say, without predicting what comes next, that they ended as well as anyone frankly had the right to hope (and much better than the pessimists would have guessed). This is not to say we will see peace in the Middle East in the next year, as the Obama administration wishes, or in the next five or ten. Still, consider:

• Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to the land.

• President Abbas condemned the Hamas attacks on Jews in the West Bank (including one which killed four), while his Palestinian Authority, to much public consternation, made more than 250 arrests. A friend remarked that it was bizarrely, and pleasurably, meta to watch the two leaders speak of Hamas’s efforts to derail the talks as, well, just that, and to state explicitly that neither was going to permit that to happen.

• At one point yesterday, Netanyahu and Abbas sat in a room and talked, just the two of them.

• Abbas agreed to Netanyahu’s U.S.-backed proposal to meet every two weeks. The next get-together will be September 14-15 in the region; Secretary of State Clinton, who mediated yesterday’s talks, will attend.

And yet!

• We still have no answer on the settlement freeze, currently scheduled to expire on September 26. Abbas reiterated yesterday that if the moratorium lapses, the talks are off. Presumably this will be the subject of the mid-month talks, and presumably the burden will be on Netanyahu to offer a partial freeze and then on Abbas to accept that as a compromise.

• There is much reason to believe Hamas isn’t done trying to violently strangle the talks yet, and that its political target is the Palestinian Authority. Plus, some members of the P.A. itself have condemned Abbas for giving in to American pressure.

• In addition to Hamas’s murderous and therefore significantly more condemnable efforts to knock the talks off-balance, members of Netanyahu’s own government are trying to use Hamas to do the same (and the West Bank settlers are literally shadowing Bibi’s every move to make sure he doesn’t sell them out, which he is going to have to do to some extent if there is to be any sort of deal).

• Many on the left still think he will fail. Specifically, many note that because the differences between the sides are so wide, it is foolish and counterproductive to shoot for a final resolution, and that instead an interim deal is the way to go.

• Other events threaten to make this month a diplomatic hell for Israel: The U.N. report on the Memorial Day flotilla is scheduled to drop, as is a U.N. Human Rights Council follow-up to the Goldstone Report, which alleged Israeli war crimes during the 2009 Gaza conflict; another flotilla might be launched; Turkey finds itself in its six-month rotating stint heading the U.N. Security Council; and Arab states are expected to press Israel on its widely-known nuclear arsenal.

• Not only has Abbas not budged on the settlement moratorium; for the time being he has not budged even on the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state—instead, the Palestinian Authority will merely recognize Israel as it has done for nearly two decades now.

• Which of course brings us to the final cause for pessimism, namely, the simple historical fact that we have been here many, many times before, and yet peace has been elusive.

So what’s different this time—what could be different this time? More of a semblance of a governing infrastructure and civil society in the West Bank? An Israeli leader who understands his place in history and just may prove to be his country’s Gorbachev? An American leader whose apparent dedication to this issue, ostensible worldwide appeal, and personal magnetism could all together provide the hidden piece to the puzzle that has bedeviled the world going on six decades?

Speaking personally, I remain a pessimist. But I genuinely am less of one than when the week began.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.