It is easy to dismiss the direct peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis as an act of hopeless diplomacy. The false starts of the past and undisguised distrust of the present make Obama's peace initiative seem like an act of desperation. Yet despite the stumbling blocks that judicious observers of the Middle East enumerate, there are also reasons to believe that this time around the negotiations will succeed.
What do these negotiations have going for them? Surprising as it may seem, the answer is the credibility of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. This is the first time that Mahmoud Abbas, a Palestinian leader who believes in dialogue and has openly admitted that the Second Intifada was a mistake, will lead formal negotiations and not a hypothetical "shelve plan." Another indication of Abbas's commitment to talk peace and reject violence is the Palestinian Authority's efforts to subdue Hamas terrorism.
Netanyahu has also demonstrated credibility and pragmatism. In his declaration about two states he recognized the Palestinians' right to establish a state. His willingness to freeze construction in the settlements reveals that he can be pragmatic when he thinks it serves Israel's best interests. His history shows that he is capable of handing over land to the Palestinians, as he did in Hebron.
Netanyahu and most of his security cabinet are pragmatic right-wing leaders. Although such leaders harbor a strong distrust towards Palestinians, in the past they have shown that they are capable of talking to their enemies if negotiations promote Israel's interests, or enable Israel to evade diplomatic crises. They are not part of the extreme nationalist-religious right that opposes the principle of a peace process and is willing to pay any price to hold on to all of the land of Israel. Furthermore, it should be noted that Netanyahu's recent rhetoric is focused on Israel's security and not its inalienable right to the holy land.
A second factor that works in favor of these negotiations is that their success serves the interests of Israel, the Palestinians and the Americans, whereas failure spells crisis for all three.
Israel wants to see a weakened and dwindling Hamas, as opposed to a popular Islamist movement that is powerful enough to make a bid for control of the West Bank. Since a viable Palestinian state under Mahmoud Abbas's leadership will wreck havoc on the popularity of Hamas, it is Israel's interest to enable such a state to be established. Furthermore, a peace agreement with the Palestinians will improve Israel's position in the international arena. It will generate more peace agreements with other Arab and Muslim countries, and it will ward off pressure from Europe and the United States. Successful negotiations will reverse Israel's descending international legitimacy.
For the Palestinians this is a chance to attain their dream—an independent state. With a state at hand, an improving economy and a society that enjoys law and order, the Palestinian Authority has a good chance to improve its standing among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and deal Hamas, its mortal enemy, a serious blow.
Lastly, a peace agreement is an American interest. Under the Obama administration American leaders, civil and military, have spoken about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians as an American interest. In the past American presidents such as the detached President Bush or the engaged President Clinton encouraged the peace process. However, neither the presidents nor the military leadership stated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hurting America. Obama conveys a clear message—the United States wants this agreement to happen. As Obama sees it, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will help the moderate regimes in the Arab and Islamic world maintain their grip on power. The stability of these regimes is an important part of America's global policy and its struggle against extreme Islamic organizations. Failure complicates American interests in the region.
Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas can afford to trip their most valued ally and take the blame for failure of the negotiations. That was reason enough for them to enter the direct talks and it may be reason enough for them to stay involved a long time. Gradually, they may find themselves at the point of diplomatic no return. That is the moment when they may get offers they will not want to refuse.