Tunnel Vision Statesmanship

The Israelis and the Palestinians each want the whole pie for themselves. Can Netanyahu and Abbas focus on peace instead of who's the bigger victim?

The current attempt at reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal has a better chance of succeeding than the two previous rounds of talks, which aspired to achieve a comprehensive deal to "end the conflict" and ended in dismal failures. The current political constellation is better suited to peacemaking than either during the Camp David summit, a decade ago, or the Annapolis process of 2007-8. In both past cases, Israel and the United States were led by lame ducks, lacking the political clout to make the deal happen. When their weakness met nay-saying Palestinian counterparts, the diplomatic effort fell apart.

This is not the case today, however. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, returned to power after a decade as a strong and popular leader. The country is in overall good shape: security is better than at any time in the past decade, and the economy is booming with 4 percent annual growth and 6.2 percent unemployment. No challengers threaten Netanyahu's seat, and given his right-winger credentials, he can be assured of wide public support for any peace deal.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Netanyahu has called "my peace partner," is also stronger than he usually gets credit for. Having lost the Gaza Strip to Hamas three years ago, Abbas's Palestinian Authority has strengthened its grip on its autonomous areas in the West Bank and forged an effective working relationship with Israel's security organs. Truly, Abbas's political horizon is unclear, but he enjoys the backing—and legitimacy—of Arab governments.

President Barack Obama may be suffering from bad polling days, and the midterm election appears gloomy to Democrats. But Obama will remain the President for at least 28 more months, and he craves a foreign-policy coup to justify his Nobel Peace Prize and compensate for the troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq. His commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking appears genuine and solid: he forced Netanyahu to accept the "two-state solution" and curb settlement expansion, and pushed a reluctant Abbas into direct talks.

Obviously, making progress on procedural matters is the easy part in any negotiation. The hard part comes with the substance, and here the gaps between the opening positions of the Palestinian and Israeli leaders are wide, mutual trust is low, and the foes back home—Hamas and the Israeli right wing—are strong and determined to disrupt a possible deal. Can Netanyahu, Abbas, and their American shepherds overcome these obstacles? Domestic political strength is a necessity for peacemaking, but it's insufficient in itself to being about the necessary compromise. To get results, rather than crash into another despairing crisis, negotiators must focus on what's feasible and avoid dead-ends.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace agenda is divided between "narrative issues," which deal with past grievances—Arab rejection of a Jewish state and the Palestinian exile of 1948—and practical issues relating to the future coexistence of Israel and a new, independent Palestine. The narrative issues are fundamental to the national identity of both peoples, but are impossible to compromise on. Each side views itself as the victim and its rival as the aggressor and invader. Accepting the other side's demands amounts to admitting that you have been wrong, fighting in vain for an unjust cause. Who would willingly accept that?

Statesmen should focus on statesmanship, and leave the narrative debates to historians and poets. Instead of grinding their teeth on finding a middle ground on mutual victimhood, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have to find solutions for the practical issues, by delineating a border and designing the security regime to support it. An agreed border will call the house to order. It will tell Israelis and Palestinians, respectively, which slice of the pie is theirs, normalize Israel's international stance, and terminate the endless debate over West Bank settlements.

Netanyahu wants to have it all: he proposes a "sovereignty for security" exchange to Abbas (practical) while insisting on Palestinian recognition of Israel as "the state of the Jewish people," or, in other words, on Palestinian acceptance of the Zionist cause (narrative). Similarly, Abbas, in his address to the Washington summit last week, used the same terms of sovereignty and security, but also repeatedly called for "justice" and described the Palestinian people as the victim. This exchange means that the elements of a workable quid pro quo are there, but they are covered by decades of pointless debates over "who was first in Jerusalem" and so on.

Obama's task is to shake the debating contest off the table, and lead Netanyahu and Abbas toward a reasonable deal. Political timing has never been better.