The path to permanent peace between Israelis and Palestinians is familiar and well trodden, yet the final destination has remained elusive. So, a casual observer might be forgiven for asking what is the point of the United States leading this exercise again by facilitating the restart of direct peace negotiations?
Doomsayers already are proclaiming that the peace process is predestined to fail. Those subscribing to a hopeful, albeit cautiously optimistic, view of the process, assert that inertia is the true enemy of peace. The talks must go on.
The peace process, after all, is a process. It takes time, perhaps much longer than we Americans would expect or desire. Still, a broad swathe of Americans do understand that Israel, while not allowed a day of peace in its 62 years of independence, yearns to live in peace and security with all of its Arab neighbors.
The process has yielded significant achievements – the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords, the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty – all accomplished through laborious negotiations. There have been times of bitter disappointment; in fact, far too many, caused by the ups and downs of negotiations, or spikes in terror and violence. And there have been timeouts, most recently the regrettable decision of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to suspend direct talks 20 months ago.
Throughout the Arab-Israeli peace process over the years two key elements have been constant and remain critical today as Israelis and Palestinians gather again around the same table. First, recognition that direct talks between Israel and credible Arab partners can achieve durable peace accords. Second, the critical role of the United States in facilitating the direct talks and sealing the peace deal.
Consider President Jimmy Carter’s personal intervention at Camp David in the direct talks between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin that produced their landmark peace treaty.
Or the White House’s hosting of the Oslo Accords signing ceremony with PLO Chief Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Or, more ominously, President Clinton’s efforts to broker a deal between Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak -- an effort that collapsed at the eleventh hour when Arafat launched the second intifada rather than end the conflict.
Americans may be disappointed with the apparent inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but American leaders never tire of trying again and again.
While today there are conflicts around the world far bloodier than between Israel and the Palestinians, it is the Middle East that captivates Americans. In part, this is due to the longstanding ties with Israel, empathy for the Jewish homeland and birthplace of Christianity. In part, it is the region’s geographical location, and its vital strategic asset of oil. And it is frequently linked -- often in an exaggerated manner -- with wider American security interests, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the region.
The U.S. also has made significant investments in the interest of securing and assuring Arab-Israeli peace, including substantial foreign aid to Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinians.
An isolationist approach to the Middle East is not an option. On the contrary, Americans should be pleased that our country’s historic role of peace facilitator remains paramount. In the run-up to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s announcement, European countries, the Arab League and others endorsing the renewal of direct talks deferred to U.S. leadership.
Will Israelis and Palestinians align and within the one-year deadline set by the administration achieve the end of conflict breakthrough that has eluded them for too long? Given the relative calm and resultant economic growth in the West Bank, and the cooperation between Israel and the P.A. in improving security, there is reason for hope if Abbas can focus, as Prime Minister Fayyad has been doing, on nurturing the embryo of a Palestinian political entity that does not, for now, include Hamas-controlled Gaza.
But the obstacles to reaching that peace are just as clear. Extremist elements in the Palestinian and wider Arab world that opposed Oslo, or earlier protested the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, that are vehemently against Israel’s very existence, are the same voices that in recent days urged Egyptian President Mubarak and Jordanian King Hussein to not attend the White House dinner with President Obama, and had urged Abbas to not accept the U.S. invite from Secretary of State Clinton.
The peace accords of the last three decades were realized in spite of the opposition. Many Americans, longing for sustainable Arab-Israeli peace, ideally would like to see the direct talks overcome both anticipated and unseen pitfalls, and result in a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement signed in the Rose Garden with Nobel Laureate Obama embracing Abbas and Netanyahu. The real victory, however, would be further into the future, decades later, when that historic agreement would still be in place.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Communications.
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