They're back at it. On Monday, Israel and the Palestinian Authority sent high-level representatives to Washington to lay the groundwork for official peace negotiations -- the first in three years -- under the auspices of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
It was widely reported that Israel's Cabinet agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners so long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels the talks are making progress towards a peace deal. Yet this approval for a prisoner release -- which is quickly becoming a lightning rod for fury and protest on both ends of the political spectrum -- is not the only event fresh in the minds of negotiators. The savagery in Syria, the turmoil in Egypt, the volatility of Iran, and the possibility of a cross-border Sunni-Shiite war are pushing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.
The last time Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sat down was in 2010, shortly after Barack Obama entered the White House under a cloud of impossible expectations and an economic crisis. The talks were anti-climactic, though they did involve constructive dialogue concerning the definition of a "land swap" -- an agreement that would allow Israel to keep major settlement blocs surrounding Jerusalem that lie outside the 1967 borders (the "Green Line") while giving up a similar parcel of land within Israel proper.
Yet the talks broke down over disagreements regarding construction in Israeli settlements. In April 2012, Abbas and Netanyahu corresponded once again, with the latter finally offering official recognition of the Palestinian right to a (demilitarized) state.
Other than that, the 2010 talks did not bring the two sides much closer to a deal, and the Israelis never came close to repeating the concessions offered by Ehud Olmert to Abbas in 2007. After all, the Palestinians were still reeling from the high casualties suffered during Operation Cast Lead, which ended in January 2009. The Israeli ground offensive was intended to weed out Hamas operatives and stop rocket fire and weapons smuggling, yet civilian causalities were high in large part due to Hamas tactics such as human shields.
However, the resentful memory of Operation Cast Lead has been replaced by the more recent Operation Pillar of Defense, the eight-day operation in November 2012 that included killing of Ahmed Jabari, chief of the Gaza military wing of Hamas. Palestinian negotiating teams will not soon forget that Netanyahu halted the operation before it evolved into a ground offensive in Gaza. The contrast between Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense may allow for a negotiating climate this time compared to 2010.
Indeed, so much has happened since Obama's previous initiative. The "Arab Spring" has decidedly drifted from the excitement and optimism of its early stages. With no end in sight to Bashar Al-Assad's bloody rule over Syria, the view from Jerusalem and Ramallah is complicated and terrifying as ever. Much is at stake for both sides should the Syrian civil war further destabilize the region. The war has already spilled into Lebanon and its capital, Beirut, to devastating effect.
William Zartman coined the term "ripeness" as a measure of when a conflict is "ripe" for settlement. Generally speaking, ripeness is attained when parties to a conflict perceive themselves to be in a "mutually hurting stalemate," such that both parties stand to lose from a continuation of the status quo. Israeli and Palestinian leaders are extremely conscious of the perilous security environment in which they find themselves due to the events unfolding in Syria as well as Egypt. A peace deal allowing for secure and permanent borders between a Jewish state and a Palestinian state would greatly improve security from Metula to Eilat.
The events in Egypt provide an additional window of opportunity for the peace camp. With Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood out of power, not only is Israeli and Western fear of an Islamist Egypt suspended for the time being, but also the likelihood of Palestinian unity with Hamas is more distant than ever. Hamas, a terrorist organization that governs that Gaza Strip, was established as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. With the Brotherhood severely crestfallen following Morsi's ouster, Hamas is at its weakest position in recent memory. Talk of reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas' Palestinian Authority has all but ceased. Moreover, while the much-hyped Palestinian scheme to gain recognition at multilateral bodies such as the United Nations has been a PR boon for Abbas, the unilateral campaign has not brought about an improvement in quality of life for Palestinians. All of this is pushing Netanyahu and Abbas back to the table. Israel, with U.S. backing, refuses to negotiate with a Palestinian delegation that includes Hamas in any form.
But even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "ripe" for settlement - even if Kerry, Abbas and Netanyahu manage to draw up the backbone of an agreement - will the Israeli and Palestinian people be ready to embrace and build a new reality on the ground? The primary failure of the Oslo Accords was that while Israeli and Palestinian leaders were completing the terms of the 1993 Declaration of Principles, no effort was made to ensure civil society on both sides was willing and equipped to implement the peace arrangements.
A glance outside Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem does not provide much hope. Protesters, including the family members of Israeli victims of terror, are gathering to express their anger over the prime minister's agreement to release Palestinian prisoners -- albeit about one tenth of those released in exchange for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. The protestors are not tremendous in number but their message finds wide acceptance in Israel: "I'm glad my son's murderers weren't found" and "Bibi, there's blood on your hands."
With this level of tension surrounding a relatively minor concession -- made before the negotiations even began - one wonders how Israelis will react to proposed solutions to the so-called final status issues of borders, security, Jerusalem, and the situation of 1948 refugees. (As for the Palestinians, many would argue they are no more committed to the vision of a just a lasting peace with two states for two peoples than was the Arab League when it rejected the UN Partition Plan of 1947.)
When it comes to the finer details of a peace deal, Netanyahu will not have to bear the burden of decision making alone. On Wednesday, the Knesset will vote on a bill that would mandate a national referendum on any peace deal involving landswaps or Israeli withdrawal from any part of Jerusalem. As Netanyahu stated, "It is important that every citizen will directly vote on fateful decisions like these that determine the future of the state."
A conundrum, though: one of only two cabinet members to oppose the draft version of the bill was Tzipi Livni, who happens to be leading the Israeli negotiating team in Washington. She and others are angry that under this bill -- in a move designed to satisfy the right -- no referendum would need to take place in regards to withdrawal from parts of the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, to use the Biblical terms often invoked by the Israeli right). In other words, the significant segment of Israeli society that wants an end to the occupation of the West Bank would be unable to express that opinion in a referendum.
The picture is muddled as ever. But Israelis and Palestinians have been waiting for their leaders to get back to the table, and they are certainly eager to play a role in shaping and evaluating a potential peace deal. Indeed, as the ghost of the Oslo Accords reminds us, civil society must be engaged meaningfully -- not just through a national referendum - if any peace agreement is to be truly embraced and implemented.