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.

To protect himself further, Netanyahu is proposing legislation that would require any accord to be submitted to the Israeli people in a referendum before it takes effect. Said Netanyahu:

“It is important that every citizen have a direct vote on fateful decisions such as these that will determine the future of the state.”

It’s entirely true that a referendum might doom an agreement, but on the other hand: Why would Netanyahu take the political risk of reaching an agreement which, if defeated in a popular vote, would probably doom his political career and force him to step down? I don’t see the logic of that unless he thinks that an agreement might be reached and that he could then persuade voters to back it.

As expected, Kerry has named Martin Indyk to represent the United States in the talks—which, incidentally, are designed to last at least six months, with Kerry getting a commitment from both sides to stay engaged for that long. As I wrote recently, it’s not encouraging that Indyk, who three decades ago served as an official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and who’s always been as strongly tilted toward Israel’s point of view and served as the US ambassador to Israel, will run the talks. On the other hand, there is a legitimate view that making use of Indyk will help Netanyahu argue at home that Israel has American support.

Fact is, the only way that the talks can succeed is if President Obama and the rest of the administration interferes, overtly and covertly, in Israeli politics—just as Netanyahu, in 2012, interfered in US politics by backing Mitt Romney. As David Mack of the Middle East Institute once explained to me, if and when the United States brought to bear all of its political operatives, former diplomats and military officials with connections inside Israel, it can have considerable effect on that tiny country’s politics. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, making threats to cut off American aid to Israel (which could never get through Congress). But it does mean using people such as Indyk and, yes, even Dennis Ross (and dozens of others) to reinforce pro-negotiations factions inside the Israel political system and deliver stern talkings-to to those who oppose a settlement.

I’m not sure that I believe that the Obama administration is capable or orchestrating something that clever or complex.

In reporting on the talks, The Guardian notes that Netanyahu seems to be motivated, in part, by the fact that Israel cannot exist if it absorbs the Palestinians and the occupied territories into Greater Israel—or, as some foolish analysts believe, into a so-called “one-state solution.” Reports the paper:

Although Netanyahu is deeply reluctant to cede territory colonised by Israel over the past 46 years, he recently said that one of his goals in the talks was “preventing the creation of a bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea”. That, as has repeatedly pointed out, would lead either to the end of Israel as a “Jewish state” or to an apartheid-like regime in which Palestinians were denied equal rights. Netanyahu may have concluded that giving up some of the territory captured by Israel in 1967 is a preferable option.

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical, if only because, well, they’ve tried this before. Stay tuned.

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