Could Obama Actually Broker Mideast Peace?

There’s broad cynicism oozing out of the Mideast peace talks, which the White House kicked off yesterday with a series of East Room speeches from leaders in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas both proclaimed they want peace deeply, but despite the two men showing friendly overtones—whispering to each other, walking with hands on each other’s backs—the decisions are, of course, not entirely theirs. Confidence is at a notable low on each side back home, and analysts in the region and in the U.S. are skeptical that the decades of conflict and mistrust can be ironed out in a series of summits over the next year.

But then again, could it really happen? The White House thinks now may be as good a moment as any. “Both sides have indicated that these negotiations can be completed within one year,” President Obama told the press corps yesterday. “And as I told each of them today, this moment of opportunity may not soon come again—they cannot afford to let it slip away.” My colleague Dan Ephron lists several detailed reasons to temper optimism about the outcome of the talks, but the core point is that with risky agreements made honestly and implemented openly, trust will follow. And trust lubricates the possibility for meaningful concessions. Netanyahu has said he's willing to go "a long way in a short time" and Abbas is on record pleading for peace for all.

The biggest sign that success could be coming is the real risk of violence flaring up should the talks fail. These kinds of negotiations tend to come in waves, and with each successive collapse, the distrust grows and several more years pass. One of the last times both parties were willing to sit down and honestly and openly negotiate, then–prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli dissident—a man who not only opposed Rabin’s willingness to compromise but thought that Israel’s destiny was to be even bigger (several times the size it is now), rather than reduced by concessions to make way for a Palestinian state. Those types of passionate sentiments still exist, no doubt, but the threat of a nuclear Iran and more violence in the region seem to add new urgency to some sort of agreement.

It’s fairly easy to know what success will look like: a tradeoff of land, ceding the settlements, and addressing the right of return. But it’s harder to know exactly what the path will be to get there. It would be shocking, almost unbelievable, if after just a few meetings with Obama, both sides decided to just bury the hatchet of decades of violence and conflict. For now, the White House has hesitated to detail exactly what kind of road map it’s working on, and what a potential agreement might entail, although both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former senator George Mitchell, who’s leading the coordination of the talks, have expressed confidence that things are on track.

That thinking, of course, might overplay the United States’ hand in the meetings. “Let me be very clear,” Obama said yesterday. “Ultimately, the United States cannot impose a solution, and we cannot want it more than the parties themselves.” The heads of both sides being seen together, whispering in each other’s ears, isn’t a terrible place to start.