An Israeli prime minister widely described as a hawk, and an Arab leader perilously isolated and reviled by the radicals, enter into peace talks—what chance do they have of succeeding? Not much, according to many commentators writing about the relaunch of direct talks in Washington this week between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The former, say the skeptics, is too unyielding to strike a historic deal, and the latter too fragile. And yet, a similar situation existed more than 30 years ago when Menachem Begin, Israel’s famously hardline leader, met at Camp David with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, whom the rejectionist Arab states had labeled a traitor. Begin and Sadat surprised the naysayers by reaching a peace accord that has endured through many Middle East crises. Netanyahu and Abbas can triumph as well, provided that the spirit of Camp David is preserved.
That spirit was captured by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who stated that the upcoming discussions should be “characterized by good faith” and conducted “without preconditions.” Begin and Sadat indeed displayed good faith. Though they came to Camp David with many expectations, neither of them demanded concessions up front. Negotiations, they knew, are about exchanging views and compromising, not about dictating the outcome in advance.
Today, Israeli and Palestinian leaders also have expectations. Israel, for example, seeks assurances that any future Palestinian state will not have missiles that can be fired at Israel’s cities or warplanes that can shoot down its airliners. Israel also wants the Palestinians to recognize it as the nation-state of the Jewish people and to end all further claims. And Israelis want the Palestinians to stop naming their town squares after notorious terrorists, and to cease teaching their children that Israel has no right to exist. These provisions are backed by the vast majority of Israelis, but the Israeli government has not cited them as preconditions for talks.
The Palestinians, by contrast, are already threatening to break off the discussions if their conditions are not met. Previously, between 1993 and 2008, Palestinians sat face to face with Israelis while construction in Israel’s West Bank communities continued. Now, even after Netanyahu’s attempt to jump-start peace talks by declaring a 10-month moratorium on such building, the Palestinians say they will walk away from the table unless any further construction for hundreds of thousands of Israelis—most of them living in areas certain to remain within Israel’s borders in any two-state solution—is frozen.
The settlements represent only one of several core issues—borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem are others—that can be resolved only after the talks begin, not before. There are no easy solutions to any of them. Even if both sides are ready for concessions, the discussions are unlikely to be problem-free. “The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us,” Secretary Clinton warned. “Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles.” This is as true today as it was in the 1970s when the talks between Begin and Sadat encountered angry opposition. Yet the two leaders persevered and produced the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. Netanyahu and Abbas can also overcome resistance and conclude an even more comprehensive agreement.
The key to success lies in the spirit of Camp David. Sadat and Begin were dedicated to peace and determined to achieve it. Their treaty, signed in March 1979, foresaw the day when the Middle East might serve as “a model for coexistence and cooperation between nations.” Prime Minister Netanyahu and the people of Israel remain committed to that vision, as are President Obama and his senior diplomats. Together with Palestinian partners willing to work in good faith, the model envisaged by that earlier—and, in its day, doubted—accord can yet become a reality.
Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States. He is also the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present.