Experts on the Middle East are uniformly skeptical that the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Palestine will produce any dramatic breakthrough. But the fact that the two parties are talking certainly beats the alternative.
Should the two sides have rejected the concerted efforts of the U.S. Secretary of State to bring them to the table, it would have signaled a dangerous and possibly permanent descent into a diplomatic abyss the world can't afford at a time when the larger region is aflame with turmoil.
The Obama Administration deserves credit for its stubborn insistence the two parties agree to a sit-down, even though they are likely to leave their seats without notable progress. The risk to Washington is that a failure to hammer-out agreements even on minor issues will be perceived as a diplomatic failure. But the stakes in this arena are too high for the United States to choose not to engage, regardless of the prognosis.
The jurisdictional disposition of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees are among the issues on the table, and there is little hope either are headed for any kind of near-term resolution. But it is important the parties agree to continue to discuss the parameters of a possible framework for a solution to arrive at least sometime in the future. Closing the channel of communication would mark a retreat toward the intractable, and guarantee an indefinite future of suspicion and hostility.
The tension that emanates from the Palestinian frontier infects the entire region. To be sure, political instability in the Arab world exists independently of any tensions with Israel. Plenty of other conflicts, whether inspired by terrorist organizations or unrest between governments and rebels, as in Syria, infect the region independent of Palestinian-Israeli tensions. But Israel is a small and vulnerable democracy in the region, and a resolution of its differences with Palestinians would have an enormous affect on regional geopolitics.
There has not been a single moment in the last half-century in which the frictions between Israel and Palestine weren't capable of igniting a conflict that could engulf the region. The current environment is exceptionally volatile. The conflict in Syria threatens to spread beyond its borders. Egypt is a breath away from anarchy. In Iraq, violent acts of insurgency are currently as plentiful and lethal as they have been at any time in the last decade.
Israel and Palestine are at odds on a multitude of issues, large and small. Efforts by U.S. diplomats to coax and compel the antagonists to formally meet and discuss those issues may end up looking like a wasted effort if no progress is made. But continuing an open dialogue is a form of lesser progress, and the downside of a failure to reach any agreement is preferable to the hazards of not trying at all.