Substantive talks on a Middle East peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians are set to begin Wednesday in Jerusalem. The process, which is scheduled to last as long as nine months, is a tribute to the strenuous efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, who identified the negotiations as his priority during President Obama’s second term.
The absence of two states — living side by side, recognized, and cooperating with each other economically — has been a dangerous source of tension since 1948, producing at least three wars. The issue has resisted the efforts of many leaders to resolve it, including Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, and British prime ministers such as Tony Blair.
It also has cost the lives of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, both of whom were assassinated by extremists in retribution for their peace efforts.
The talks will not be easy. The quick end of Mr. Obama’s attempt to relaunch them in 2009 is clear evidence of the sensitivity of the subject. Then, Palestinians made Israeli willingness to suspend expansion of settlements in the West Bank a condition of continuing the talks. Israeli leaders refused and the talks failed.
The issues in play have been thoroughly examined over the years, and the outline of a solution is no mystery. The proposed boundaries of the two states are tied to the fate of the Israeli settlements — population 500,000 — on land that mostly would become Palestinian in the West Bank.
Also at stake is the right of an estimated 5 million Palestinians to return to Israel and to the newly independent Palestine. There is the question of the status of Jerusalem, which hosts holy sites of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; both states want the city as their capital. There is also the fundamental question of security for the two states.
But the key fact now is that the talks are beginning. Israel says it is willing to release an initial 26 longtime prisoners, among the estimated 6,000 Palestinians it holds. At the same time, Israel announced this week that it plans to build housing for another 1,200 settler families in the West Bank, testing Palestinians’ commitment to the talks.
Both sides need to proceed with the talks, undistracted by provocations. Secretary Kerry and President Obama will need to be ready to act decisively if this train starts to come off the tracks. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.