Expectations could hardly be lower as the Israeli government and the Palestinians prepare for a new round of direct talks in Washington. The Obama administration says it would like to see a comprehensive peace plan put into place within a year. A lofty goal, to be sure. The Israelis and Palestinians sides may not agree on much, but they apparently are of one mind about the time frame: It won’t happen. As Yossi Beilin, a former Knesset member, said, “The gap between the two sides is too big.”
We very much hope the skeptics are wrong. While it takes some effort to imagine a magic formula that would bring a lasting peace to the region within 12 months, at least the two sides are talking.
History suggests that talks are not always wise, and that negotiated settlements do not guarantee peace. The world would have been better off if Neville Chamberlain had absented himself from Munich in 1938 and sent the Royal Air Force in his place.
But history also suggests that breakthroughs can and do happen, sometimes quite unexpectedly. Twenty years ago, few people would have predicted that Northern Ireland would soon have a legislative assembly in which militant Unionists and onetime IRA members shared power. The arrangement has not worked perfectly, but at least bombs no longer shatter the night in Belfast.
The settlement in Northern Ireland was the result of direct talks facilitated by the Clinton administration. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, of course, far more complicated than other conflicts in other regions of the world. But complications should not be an obstacle to negotiation, not at a time when the alternative seems to be growing animosity and mistrust.
It is incumbent on the Obama administration to show that it has the vision and the patience to follow through on its ambitious goal of a settlement within a year. This is an opportunity for the Obama administration to prove that it is serious about the issue and serious about its close ties to a longtime friend and ally. If Washington has nothing new to propose and discuss, the fault will not be with the two parties at the table. Yes, talks are preferable to war, but Washington must make sure that the talks are meaningful and not simply make-work.