Purely by coincidence, today's edition of Real Clear World has three very pessimistic articles on the Middle East peace process only about a week or two after I mailed in the manuscript for my latest book, tentatively titled Why the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Remains Unsolved: the Politics of the Two-State Solution, which will probably be published by McFarland Publishing of North Carolina sometime late next year. These three articles here, here, and here, tend to blame the Palestinians and Arabs in general rather than Israel. The first is by a noted Italian commentator on international affairs, Emanuele Ottolenghi (eight tongues); the second by The New Republic's longtime columnist Leon Wieseltier; and the last by a writer at a conservative Israeli tabloid, Yediot Aharonot (confession: this was the paper I usually read when I was a student in Israel over three decades ago because of its relatively easy Hebrew).
The problem with the two-state solution since it was first proposed by West Bank Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals in the 1970s was that it required both sides to go way out of their comfort zones and take real risks for peace. The risks on the Israeli side--at least until Rabin's assassination by a radical religious law student in November 1995--were mainly political rather than physical; on the Palestinian side they were both. Plus these two sides had to be ready to take these risks at the same time and while the United States administration was prepared to vigorously mediate between them to reach a solution. Since the early 1990s the two sides were out of sync. First, Arafat was most desperate for a deal in 1992-93 at the start of the Oslo process when the PLO was bankrupt due to a cutoff of Gulf state contributions following Arafat's embrace of Saddam's annexation of Kuwait. But Rabin wanted to take it slow and test Arafat and develop support for a final settlement. Plus, it was not all that clear that Rabin supported the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Under Netanyahu from mid-1996 to mid-1999 Israel pursued a go-very-slow policy. By the time that Ehud Barak was ready to negotiate with the Palestinians in early 2000, Arafat was suspicious of his motives and ready to appease the Islamists and reject Israeli compromise proposals at Camp David. In October 2000 the Al-Aksa Intifada broke out with both Arafat and Arik Sharon bearing heavy responsibility for it. After that a solution was precluded until the Palestinians had a new leader. But this resulted in Sharon replacing Barak as prime minister in February 2001. A settlement now awaited a new Israeli leader as well. This did not occur until March 2006 when Kadima leader Ehud Olmert followed Sharon two months after Sharon's massive stroke.
By that time, however, Hamas had beaten Fatah in Palestinian legislative elections in January. This severely restricted Mahmoud Abbas. In Washington George W. Bush was still in the White House and American troops were bogged down fighting an insurgency in Iraq. Upon arriving at the White House in January 2001 Bush had been warned about Arafat's fecklessness and duplicity by multiple members of the outgoing administration from the president on down. He was determined to stay out of the peace process until Arafat was gone. He made a pro-forma stab at it with the Road Map initiative in 2004 in order to appease his Iraq-invasion partner, Tony Blair. By the time that Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice were ready to mediate in late 2007, Olmert was crippled by Israel's poor performance in the July 2006 Second Lebanon War. Olmert and Abbas met several times over several months but Abbas regarded Olmert as a poor risk and probably thought that he could get more from an Obama administration.
In 2009 the peace process finally had an American president who was ready to mediate, but he had two Middle East partners who did not want to negotiate. This meant that he made a few speeches, pressured Netanyahu--the bane of the Oslo process was by then back in office--into declaring a very conditional building freeze in the West Bank. Netanyahu front-loaded construction before the freeze went into effect and then refused to renew it despite a very generous bribe offer from Obama. Obama saw that his time was better spent managing the withdrawal from Iraq, shepherding health care through Congress, attempting to revive the economy and putting pressure on Iran to end its uranium refining effort. So how likely are we to be ripe and ready for peace in 2013? Hint: Netanyahu will be back, Abbas will still be a lame duck, and Obama still has one Middle East war to finish, a big compromise to negotiate with the Republicans, and a resolution of Iran's nuclear effort. Here is Peter Beinart's take on Obama's likely second term strategy in the region.