The long effort to negotiate a peace agreement based on Israeli and Palestinian states in the Middle East, relaunched by Secretary of State John F. Kerry at the beginning of President Barack Obama's second term, may be reaching a crucial juncture.
Kerry has put in front of both sides what is called a framework for agreement. It includes an agenda of the important points to be resolved, suggested approaches to these issues to facilitate negotiations and a timetable for their resolution. To promote acceptance of the framework, and the forward progress that acceptance by both sides would constitute, Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House last week and will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington next week.
The public statements of both Netanyahu and Abbas on the subject of an agreement are critical. They are taking positions that will enable them in the future - if an agreement is reached - to defend themselves against inevitable attacks from opponents of an accord among their constituencies. In that sense, assuming that both are responsible leaders, their current, sometimes shrill, insistence on specific provisions is a positive sign. Both will be able to say later that they did their best before making a deal. Both will also be able to say that they were obliged to listen and respond to Kerry's dedicated, energetic efforts to resolve their problems.
One loose end, as progress is made on the agreement, is Gaza. Kerry has not grasped that nettle from the beginning. The first problem is that Abbas' party, Fatah, which rules in the West Bank, and Hamas, which is more or less in charge in Gaza, do not play well together, thus dividing the Palestinian side in the talks. Egypt has been squeezing Gaza economically, increasing Gazans' fury at their situation. Hamas is now permitting extremists in Islamic Jihad in Gaza to launch rockets into Israel. Israel has responded predictably with air strikes in Gaza. Renewed violence in the conflict area is not a healthy backdrop to the overall negotiations.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks are still the most important item on America's diplomatic agenda. Obama and Kerry must continue to keep their shoulders to the wheel to bring them to a successful close, in spite of distractions such as Ukraine.