The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been decoded. Both sides and the US know exactly what it takes to solve it. Now it is time for Barack Obama to show that he is not just going through the motions again.
Every effort to advance Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations can expect to face four separate but related crises: confidence-destroying activities on the ground; political turmoil that complicate leaders' ability and readiness to negotiate; a deep substantive divide over all the core issues; and active attempts by spoilers, opponents of the peace process, to undermine the process.
As each of these crises occurs - and, if history is a guide, all of them are certain to confront the parties and the United States sooner or later - the political will, determination, and political backbone of all sides will be tested. For the Obama administration, its responses to these crises will determine how serious it is serious about trying to achieve peace.
The administration is well-versed in these problems and thus logically should be prepared. Thus far there has been no apparent success in achieving an Israeli settlements freeze, although recent press articles have suggested a de facto slowdown on the ground. Since settlement activities remain one of the most vexing problems Palestinians face in deciding whether a peace push is serious, how the United States reacts to the inevitable Israeli announcements of new construction will be critical.
This is especially important in three geographic areas: E-1, the stretch of land between Jerusalem and the settlement of Maale Adumim to the east; in Jerusalem itself, in particular in the ring of neighborhoods that surround the Old City on the eastern side; and outside the area encompassed by the Israeli security barrier, that is, beyond the small percentage of West Bank land that is likely to be part of land swaps in a peace accord.
On the politics of peace making, the Obama administration, like its predecessors, is well-attuned and sensitive to the always-dynamic and usually-chaotic political situation in Israel. The question thus is whether it will manifest equal sensitivity to Palestinian politics.
After the resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority is much weaker, and therefore the PLO, Israel's negotiating partner, is commensurately weaker. Second, the Fatah-Hamas and West Bank-Gaza divides are crippling Palestinian politics, and until now the United States has opposed efforts at reconciliation.
The Israelis and Palestinians are intimately familiar with their adversaries' substantive positions on the four core issues of territory/borders; security; Jerusalem; and refugees. The United States should also be intimately familiar with these issues, although the total upheaval in the American peace team, from Secretary of State John Kerry on down, raises a serious question as to the institutional memory in Washington.
Spelling it out
More fundamentally, the question is whether the administration will continue long-standing practice and avoid expressing a view on the substantive issues, or whether the administration will articulate parameters on those issues to serve as terms of reference for negotiations. Without this US role, it is hard to see the parties themselves reaching agreement on the terms of reference even if they say they are ready to negotiate.
Fourth, the spoilers are already at work trying to undermine the prospects of negotiations and peace.
Palestinian terrorists continue to smuggle weapons, including more sophisticated rocketry, and are now using the security vacuum in Sinai to open another terror front against Israel. On the other side, a small but very nasty and active group of settlers is becoming a law unto itself, exacting its brand of "justice" on Palestinians and their property. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Israel is doing nearly enough to curb these actions. Can and will the United States act?
Gather external support
On each of these issues, the jury is still out whether the administration will muster the political will, determination, and backbone to sustain a serious peace effort. In this respect, the role of the other Quartet members - the European Union, Russia, and United Nations - becomes even more important in bolstering the resolve of the international community to try to end this conflict.
Similarly, the role of the Arab world, as reflected in the Arab Peace Initiative, is also critical, as it provides a safety net for the hard decisions Palestinians must take and also provides incentives for the risky decisions Israel must take. Until now, these two support structures have not been very effective.
By now, there are almost no mysteries remaining in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or peace process. Like two familiar foes on the field, the two sides strategize, maneuver, and play out their tactics with a depressing sense of déjà vu.
So, too, the third party, the United States, takes the playing field knowing all too well what to expect and presumably experienced in the wiles of the parties. Whether Israelis, Palestinians, and the United States again simply go through the motions of this familiar game remains to be seen.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Daniel Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, served as the United States Ambassador to Egypt and Israel. He is the co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace and the editor of Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
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