US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on June 28, 2013. (Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin)
Syria is enmeshed in civil war (though there’s renewed hope for the Geneva peace conference), Egypt is engaged in violent political strife, and Iraq is blowing up. So, is this the time for talks on the Israel-Palestine conflict? I’d say yes, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the moment.
The talks start tonight and continue through Tuesday, then move to the Middle East. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Palestinian official, says that the talks “will begin, in principle, on the issues of borders and security.” That’s a lot better than starting with the dead-end issue of Israel settlements, for instance, which—although critical in an end-agreement—is less important than the issue of what border will separate Israel and Palestine and how both sides can be assured of security. And Abed Rabbo properly raises the fact that so far, at least, the United States has excluded the Palestinians from the security-related dimensions of an accord:
“This is a big shortcoming in the Israeli and the American behavior because they are not discussing their bilateral security, they are discussing a central and a fundamental issue of ours and it concerns our future as a whole.”
It’s not nothing that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has agreed to release about 100 Palestinian prisoners held for up to two decades or more. That was a Palestinian precondition for re-entering the talks, and it might have given Netanyahu an easy way out of them, if he wanted one. His agreeing to this condition has created a mini-crisis in Israel, with ultra-hawks and some members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party strongly opposing the release. Here’s what Netanyahu said on television:
“This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of those moments.”
It’s easy to dismiss Netanyahu’s comments, since he’s never shown the slightest interest in reaching an accord remotely close to what Palestinians could accept. It’s entirely possible that Netanyahu is simply pacifying Secretary of State Kerry, who’s invested enormous amounts of time in shuttling back and forth between the United States and the Middle East to restart talks between the two sides. Undoubtedly, Kerry put great pressure on both President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and on Netanyahu to get on board, and it could have been difficult for Netanyahu simply to say, “No.” But the fact remains that he said yes, and he’s exposed himself to considerable political criticism from the right in Israel by agreeing to release the prisoners.