I took part in a three-way debate between London, Washington and Moscow yesterday for Voice of Russia. I hadn't expected it to be filmed, so online viewers will have been treated to me in a Batman T-shirt and pink sunglasses. Mercifully, the video is absent from the audio, which can you find at the link below.
The debate was sober and measured and there were some good points made by the other two contributors. My main points (mostly unrelated) were these:
1) Domestic politics in Israel is tumultuous, but it offers some reason for optimism.
The orthodox Jewish parties are out, their alliance with the far-right religious nationalists broken. The new coalition is partly glued by a drive to make orthodox Jews do military service and lose state funding, not least for their inordinately large families. In response they have suddenly grown a conscience on the occupation and are calling for all sorts of radical things, including a settlement freeze. Benjamin Netanyahu will be eyeing them nervously with an eye to all but inevitable future coalition negotiations. By that time they may be considerably more dovish than they were before. Combined with a positive change in Israeli public opinion, it gives him more of a reason to pursue talks, above just keeping the US quiet.
2) Nevertheless, Israel's political class is still mostly insane.
As another contributor said, the current government is arguably the most right wing Israel has ever had. They are outraged by talks, let alone an actual solution. They'll fight it all the way.
3) The Arab Spring has sparked some unlikely outcomes.
In a way, these talks are only happening because the situation in Egypt and Syria is so disastrous. It's horrifying to recognise that John Kerry actually thinks Israel/Palestine is the easier problem to fix. On the other it raises some interesting possibilities, not least by the weakening of Hamas due to the ejection of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt. The distraction of the Arab Spring and the (let's call a spade a spade) civil war between Shia and Sunni is that attentions are not really focused on the talks. There is no hype, and with less hype there is a greater chance of success.
But the fact there is so little hype means Mahmoud Abbas can leave talks without suffering any negative publicity at home, especially given the unilateral attempt at recognition at the UN. That releases the pressure on the Palestinians team.
5) The UN recognition attempt is good politics.
Whatever the US and Israel said about its pointlessness, the Palestinian's attempts to secure a state gave them another bargaining tool for the talks. Combined with the weakness of Hamas, they have something to offer Israel in exchange for '67 borders and a settlement freeze. The right of return is still, to my mind, the most intractable problem for Israel.
6) The best we can hope for now is radio silence
A mark of success is lack of coverage. If there are no leaks over the next nine months, it will suggest that the talks are dealing with substantive issues, rather than leaving them to the last minute. It is not a good thing in itself, but a sign that good things might be happening in that room.
7) Don't expect good things.
Only a madman would look at the events since 1968 and be confident of success. But talks are better than no talks.