Considering the current reality in the Middle East, adopting a pessimistic view about where things are headed between Israel and the Palestinians is infinitely easier than clinging to hopeful visions of what can be. Deadly chaos in Egypt, infernos that Dante never imagined burning in Syria, brutal tribalism re-asserting itself in Iraq, and tottering regimes throughout the Arab Crescent offer little hope of a better tomorrow.
As Walter Russell Mead recently noted, the only point of consensus in Egypt is a palpable sentiment of anti-Americanism. Its incoherence in addressing the horrific human toll in Syria and its impotence in effectively confronting Iran’s drive to nuclear capacity and regional hegemony only serve to reinforce perceptions of the growing irrelevance and diminishing influence of the United States in the region.
It is in this context that many have wondered about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to focus virtually all of his efforts, resources, and political credibility on reviving direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Pointing to these two stakeholders as the last remaining targets of American clout, cynics are quick to dismiss Kerry’s gambit. However, those who have met with him – including Israelis and Palestinians – are uniformly struck by his sincerity and determination.
We are left to wonder whether those attributes are enough to nudge the parties toward an agreement? Is there a way to break the cycle of the sometimes failed and other times futile efforts that have plagued negotiations for the last 22 years?
The optimist in everyone who yearns to see Israel at peace has to believe it is possible. But for peace to become a reality, two fundamental transformations must take place: the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state and they must make a commitment to adopt liberal democratic principles as their organizing structure. Only then will the terms agreed to be allowed to filter down and take root within the Palestinian amcha. Call it recognition and emulation.
It is axiomatic to the notion of conflict resolution – as opposed to the absence of war – that the parties not only recognize each other, but also recognize the other as a legitimate entity. So long as Palestinians do not recognize the legitimacy of Israel as the Jewish state for the Jewish People, there can be no peace, only the absence of war. And, as long as Palestinians do not embrace the concept of liberal democracy as the organizing principle of future statehood, there can be no peace, only another Arab regime bound to surrender to the anarchy and turmoil that characterize the rest of the region to a lesser or greater extent.
To paraphrase Irwin Cotler, Israel’s efforts (most notably the concessions that are and will continue to be demanded of the Jewish state) to achieve peace with the Palestinians are hardly worth the effort if they only result in the creation of yet another Arab regime devoid of the liberal democratic principles that sustain Israel and the western world.
Palestinians have an opportunity to break the cycle, to fashion a new and exciting narrative. And perhaps, in creating the circumstances to achieve this goal, Kerry will have re-acquired some of the stature and attendant influence that the United States seems to have lost in the Middle East.