Peace talks offer rare opportunity
By Victor Kotsev
The anticipated renewal of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington, DC, this week has the potential to reshape not only the Israeli-Palestinian political scene but the entire region, and with it the narrative of the Arab Spring. Whether this potential will be realized is another question, and depends on the commitment of all sides as well as, in no small part, on a number of unfolding regional intrigues.
It is true that the gaps between the negotiating positions of Israelis and Palestinians are difficult to bridge, but contrary to conventional wisdom this has less to do with the content of the talks and more to do with building trust and providing the right
combination of incentives and pressure-the job of the mediator, in the case the United States.
For example, former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reportedly demonstrated that it is possible to solve the borders issue during an unofficial recent exercise at Rice University, where they discussed the possibility of Israel annexing the equivalent of some 4% of the West Bank in exchange for territories elsewhere.  On other issues, too, the gaps have narrowed significantly since the disastrous 2000 Camp David summit.
The dizzying schedule of US Secretary of State John Kerry  clearly demonstrates American commitment to the negotiations, but it is not as clear whether that commitment will be sufficient to push through the thornier issues between the sides. In the past weeks and months, Kerry chalked up some significant successes, including an Arab League statement that "minor land swaps" were acceptable in its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which is based on the 1967 lines, and a more recent Arab League endorsement of his own initiative. 
Reportedly, he also managed to persuade the Israelis to informally restrict settlement construction beyond the Green Line and to release some long-serving Palestinian prisoners. 
The breakthrough is believed to have come with a convoluted formula according to which the US would declare the 1967 borders and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a basis for the talks, but the Israelis and Palestinians would avoid uttering these words themselves,  at least initially.
Two recent international developments also helped greatly: the adoption of the new European settlement directives last week,  which helped persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the American initiative, if nothing else, was the lesser of two evils, and the military coup in Egypt, which left Hamas in Gaza more isolated than ever.
Just how much influence Hamas could have on an Israeli-Palestinian accord is evident in the conclusion of a recent report by the US-based analysis firm Stratfor: "The two sides [Israel and Hamas] will have to be convinced to come to the negotiating table before any attempt at reviving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could gain traction."
But so far, despite proclaiming the initiative a "disaster" for the Palestinian project, Hamas has not taken any steps to undermine the talks such as launching missiles or terror attacks against Israel. And for a good reason: the military coup that removed its Egyptian patron, the Muslim Brotherhood, pitted Hamas against the Egyptian army in Sinai. Should it start a war with Israel, it could face an existential threat to its regime in the Gaza Strip from two sides.
In fact, Gaza was quite close to the core of the disagreements that convinced them to forcefully remove former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi from power, Egyptian army officials recently told the AP:
Seif el-Yazl and the military and intelligence officials said security in the strategic Sinai Peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel was at the heart of the differences. The region plunged into lawlessness after Mubarak's ouster, with Islamic militants gaining increasing power. Soon after Morsi took office, militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in a single attack and smaller-scale shootings on security forces mounted. In May, six policemen and a soldier were kidnapped. 
Thus, in the event of a conflict with Israel, Hamas can hardly expect any assistance from the Egyptian military, which has been closing down tunnels linking Gaza with Sinai in preparation for a large-scale offensive in the restive peninsula. As-of-yet unsubstantiated reports even claim that a number of Hamas fighters were killed in clashes in Sinai. 
The editor of the left-leaning Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Aluf Benn, expanded the list of propitious circumstances in a recent article, arguing that the current moment is a "chance of a lifetime" for Netanyahu to set his legacy:
The Arab world is crumbling and weak; its moderate Sunni leaders long for a diplomatic achievement that will prolong the life of their regimes. Hamas, worried about the fall of its Egyptian patron Mohammed Morsi, is busy strengthening its rule and its military prowess and will have a hard time torpedoing the talks as it did in the past. Netanyahu understands that without a significant step vis a vis the Palestinians, "the world" will not support Israeli action against Iran. US. Secretary of State John Kerry is eager to succeed, stubborn and knows how to conduct himself with the two parties, as he showed in the renewal of the talks. Netanyahu is at the height of his political power, with no rivals. He has an alternative coalition and most of the public supports an agreement. 
Yet a word of caution is due: the negotiations are expected to be long and difficult, and it is possible that at some point in their course, Hamas or other spoilers will feel strong enough-or desperate enough-to try to torpedo them. If left unresolved, the issue of intra-Palestinian reconciliation in particular will likely come to haunt the peace process.
If the Israelis, Palestinians and the international community can find the will and the means to resolve one of the longest and most entrenched active conflicts in the world, there is a beautiful vision awaiting for them-a vision of prosperity and peace, and their states, closely intertwined, as a paradoxical island of stability amid a stormy Middle East.
The entire region, preoccupied with domestic problems, would be able to put behind a major festering issue, and a web of new possibilities and links would quickly appear. Investment would certainly soar, in both Israel and Palestine.
But side-by-side with this dream, a nightmare also exists: the nightmare of violence. The failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 led to the bloody Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), which caused serious damage to both Israeli and Palestinian societies.
By most accounts, the window of opportunity for peace is rapidly closing, and the urgency is much greater now than it was a decade ago: Kerry recently estimated that in two years the Two-State solution would not be implementable, though the specific deadline is subject to discussion. What is more important is that brutal violence and gloom would be the most likely outcome of that scenario.
In fact, part of what makes the peace talks credible is that this is likely the last chance to achieve peace. If the Israelis and Palestinians, alongside the American mediators, again fail to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, there may not be another one for a long time.