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July 29, 2013 8:14 pm

Analysis: As Peace Talks Begin, Middle East Analysts Praise John Kerry, But Maintain Low Expectations

avatar by Joshua Levitt

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John Kerry announces the onset of negotiations. Photo: Screenshot.

As peace talks were set to resume Monday evening in Washington at a gala post-Ramadan-fast dinner hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry, long-time Middle East analysts praised the first result of a marathon six months of US shuttle diplomacy, but were skeptical as to what could ultimately be achieved.

“I’m humbled,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I did not believe Kerry would get this far. If he’s gotten this far, what’s to say he can’t push it further? If he’s gotten this far, we shouldn’t discount the possibility of further progress.”

Schanzer does, however, remain unconvinced that these negotiations will prove fruitful, and part of his doubtful approach is the preparedness of those most essential to reaching a deal.

“Neither one of these leaders was prepared for this moment,” he says. “[Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu has spent the last five years trying to build a consensus for an intervention in Iran and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas has  spent the last eight years building towards an international consensus against Israel. I think neither man expected Kerry to get this far. It may force both men to make compromises, on the other hand they weren’t looking for this moment.”

Other analysts agreed that this first step may have been the easiest.

“This is an important beginning, but we should have no illusions here,” said Dr. Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations from 1978 to 2003. Miller said that the whole process is dependent on the US maintaining its “very active [role] but neither side is anywhere near a fundamental breakthrough. But without the American role, without John Kerry, there would be no peace process, full stop.”

He added: “On borders and security, we have one issue, and recognizing Israel as the nation for the Jewish people, as the other, which has been all but unimaginable until now. On borders and security, it’s possible we could see an agreement, but we’re months away from it.”

Schanzer believes that, no matter the outcome, the Palestinian infrastructure lacks the necessary components to succeed as an independent state in its current manifestation.

“This isn’t to say they haven’t suffered long enough, or that there isn’t a national movement yearning for a Palestinian state,” he says, “but I think that the institutions have become very brittle over the last ten years or so. They’re perhaps the least prepared than they have been in years.”

For peace to emerge, and for hostilities to subside, “both sides have to understand the needs of the other, in the right environment, to hit the ground moving in the right direction,” Miller said.

What has to happen to prevent this from being “a key to an empty room,” as Miller puts it, is for the process “to move from his ownership to theirs. And that’s only going to happen if the two sides deal directly with each other, acknowledging the issues of the other to bridge the gap, and relying on the US to keep the process going.”

Miller’s analogy: “for a good life, a good marriage, a good business, people need to work together, they need to want it to happen, they take ownership. The joke is why don’t people ever wash rental cars, and the answer is you care only about what you own, and there’s insufficient ownership here.”

Schanzer’s analogy was just the opposite: “The deal here is not to broker a peace, but rather to broker an amicable divorce. I don’t expect this to devolve into a warm peace deal where everyone gets what they want and the conflict is truly set aside. The animosity remains.”

One of the biggest unknowns in the process is the role that Fatah’s nemesis, terror group Hamas will play, as the ruling party of Gaza is absent from the talks.

“As a spoiler, Hamas can sustain it’s position,” Miller said, but Fatah “barely controls 30% of West Bank, the economy is in a dumpster and the angry and disillusioned public has to be what they’re afraid of.”

With the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas’s position is weaker, Schanzer said, providing space for maneuvers. “Hamas’s weakness is an inducement that Kerry can give to both the Palestinians and Israel. He could serve up a crippled Hamas on a plate, which could be a big inducement to get them to come to the table.”

History shows that talks tend to progress until an agreement is within sight, and then the PA walks out; but that may be too hard for Abbas to defend publicly now. If Fatah walks out of the talks, Abbas will “presumably be no closer to gaining what he claims to want, an independent Palestinian state,” Miller said.

On the eve of the first night of talks, it was too early to begin the discussion of damage control if the process ends in an untoward manner, but history shows what might happen, especially when violence enters the picture.

“There’s always the risk [of revolt.] It’s exactly what happened in 2001, 2002 with the outbreak of  the Second Intifada,” Schanzer says.

But Miller is more doubtful, with a nod to the effectiveness of the Israelis: “I think the short answer will be that Palestinians will always be angrier at Israel than their own leaders. And one of the reasons there hasn’t been this open revolt is because of the occupation, as Israel would put down any insurrection.”

Additional reporting by Zach Pontz.

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