In its quest for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the United States has pursued essentially the same objective over several administrations. So when Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced during his latest round of shuttle diplomacy that "we can achieve a permanent-status agreement that results in two states for two peoples if we stay focused," skepticism was understandable.
Not just because the peace process has been so tragically unsuccessful over the last 15 years, but because even today, each side seems intent on thumbing its nose at the other. Just last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas enraged many Israelis when he offered a hero's welcome to a group of recently released Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of attacking or killing Israelis. Israel infuriated Palestinians by announcing, on the eve of Kerry's arrival, that it would build yet more settlements in the West Bank.
But there is also some reason for guarded optimism. First, Kerry has invested immense energy in trying to achieve an agreement. Second, despite periodic allegations of bad faith, Israelis and Palestinians are seriously talking to each other after a long rupture. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grudgingly endorsed the notion of a two-state solution, though Palestinians and some Israelis doubt his sincerity. Finally, Saudi Arabia is supporting Kerry's effort.
There is little doubt about what the "framework" Kerry is seeking would contain: a partition between Israel and a Palestinian state that would generally follow Israel's pre-1967 borders, but with exchanges of territory to bring some Jewish settlements on the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty; a resolution of the status of Jerusalem that would allow for the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem or nearby; a recognition that most Palestinians whose families were displaced in 1948 would be able to return to the new Palestinian state rather than Israel, perhaps with compensation; and guarantees that an independent Palestine wouldn't be a staging ground for attacks against Israel.
In recent years, Netanyahu has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel not only as an independent nation but as a "Jewish state," a designation he has called "the real key to peace." In one sense, the notion of Israel as a Jewish state is obvious: It was founded as a haven for the Jewish people. But Israel also is home to 1.6 million Arabs, 20% of the population. For Palestinians, being required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state would be a ratification of second-class citizenship for Israel's Arabs.