The success of Secretary of State John Kerry in leading Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations is presenting the United States with an immense challenge.
Right now, there’s almost no chance of achieving a conflict-ending agreement; yet by pressing the Israelis and Palestinians back toward the table, the United States has assumed responsibility for producing one.
Above all, the Americans now need to lower expectations and find a realistic focus for the talks. That means pushing for an agreement on borders and security first, without precluding discussion of Jerusalem and refugees too.
Many have questioned why Mr. Kerry is focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, while Syria is embroiled in civil war, Egypt is in political crisis, and Iran is moving to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. Negotiating this conflict first hardly seems the key to Middle East stability.
But the Israeli-Palestinian problem is a witches’ brew and always dynamic. A conflict-ending accord may not be possible now, but without a credible negotiation to manage the situation, it will only deteriorate further.
For Israel, the absence of serious negotiations would increase its isolation and rule out hope for a solution that could secure its values as a democratic Jewish state. Palestinians would grow even more polarized and aggrieved; they would find ways to challenge the occupation, emboldening Hamas and other Islamists to attack Israel with increasingly powerful weapons.
And an unresolved Palestinian issue would over time undermine Egypt’s and Jordan’s treaties with Israel, regardless of whether Islamists or secularists hold power in Cairo and Amman. It would also continue to drag down our credibility in the Arab world.
Talking for talking’s sake is not what I am proposing. That would make matters only worse. But a serious process toward achievable goals could build trust and reduce tensions.