On Monday, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State John Kerry had convinced Israel and the Palestinian Authority to sit down for negotiations for the first time in three years. Coming out of Monday and Tuesday’s meetings, Kerry announced a goal of working out a comprehensive peace agreement within nine months.
Simply reviving talks at all is a highly impressive achievement; getting both sides to the table would have been impossible without Kerry’s relentless effort. But if the Obama administration thinks this will change the dynamic in the Middle East, it is mistaken for two reasons. First, the initiative is unlikely to succeed, and second, even if it did, it would have little impact on other more immediately pressing Middle East conflicts.
It’s not that pushing for an Israel-Palestine solution isn’t a valiant cause — it’s that there is a full tray of conflicts in the Middle East that exist independently from the Israel-Palestine question: the growing rifts in Egypt or Iraq, the Syrian crisis that has claimed over 100,000 lives, or Iran’s nuclear program. Even Israel and Palestine themselves prioritize many other regional concerns over making any significant progress with each other.
Don’t get me wrong — the chances of success are not zero. But no matter how legacy-defining a lasting breakthrough would be for Obama and Kerry, the odds are incredibly long. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has started and stopped countless times before. So what are the biggest structural impediments to a deal?
Obama’s envoy, former Israeli ambassador Martin Indyk, will only be speaking with representatives of Palestinians’ Fatah party. Since Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006, the territories have been divided into two entities, with Gaza in Hamas’ hands and the West Bank under Fatah control. Fatah lacks the legitimacy at home to negotiate and later implement any final agreement with Israel; the exclusion of the more fundamentalist Hamas from the diplomatic process gives Hamas every incentive to undermine any possible deal. If we begin to see substantial progress, expect Hamas to scuttle it with a violent show of force.