The ingredients for progress all seem to be there: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s uber-hawk prime minister, has been weakened by this week’s election results. John Kerry, the ambitious incoming U.S. secretary of State, would clearly like to make his bones in the toughest diplomatic arena there is: the Mideast. And now we have a new push from the White House, which announced Wednesday that it was interested again in starting up "direct negotiations” between Israelis and Palestinians that address “the final-status issues and results in a two-state solution," in the words of press secretary Jay Carney.
Here’s a recommendation: If you were wondering whether you might have to change your life at all in the event peace breaks out in the Mideast, you can stop worrying. Make your plans for spring and summer. And, then again, for next winter’s ski trip. And probably through 2014. Because there is no sign that anything – anything at all -- is going to change.
First, the Israeli election. Wednesday’s results were nothing like the election of February 2009 when there was a genuine alternative to Netanyahu: Tzipi Livni, then head of the pro-negotiation Kadima Party (which received one more seat than Netanyahu’s Likud party). Had she managed to secure the premiership, a great deal could have been different, despite Hamas's control of Gaza. This time around, the new kingmaker of Israeli politics, Yair Lapid, whose party won about 19 seats to become the Knesset’s second largest, ran mainly on domestic issues (such as dropping military exemptions for ultra-orthodox Jews) and didn’t differ that much from Netanyahu on Palestinian issues. Nor is he likely to. “The priority of this government is going to be mainly internal,” says Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group, a former Mideast negotiator.
Second, despite polls showing that most Israelis want a two-state solution, most also have given up hope for a Palestinian partner and have developed a kind of peace lethargy behind their reinforced security “fence” and “Iron Dome” missile-defense system. What has been true for six years is still the case today: Fatah, in control of the West Bank, wants to negotiate, but Hamas, which has Gaza, won’t. Despite wild talk of “three-state solutions” and such, until something changes about the Fatah-Hamas split, the ideological permafrost that has prevented progress on fundamental issues since at least 2006 -- when Hamas stunningly won the Palestinian elections and then violently took over Gaza -- will likely resist penetration by even the most determined peace negotiator. And nothing in this election is expected to affect that.
Finally, the one person who might represent hope as a new broker in the region, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi—who ably negotiated a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in November—has been sinking in stature since then, a spiral compounded by the revelation of ugly comments he made in 2010 about Israelis being "the descendants of apes and pigs."
So, go ahead, get on with your life. We’ll give you fair warning if anything’s about to change. No sign of that now.