A return to the Mideast table

The announcement that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resume long-stalled peace talks is an important step forward, but celebrations will be muted. All concerned are well aware of the many pitfalls that lie ahead and the possibility — indeed the likelihood — that a genuine agreement will continue to prove elusive.

Still, the decision to resume substantive negotiations in two weeks, with a goal toward reaching a deal within nine months is to be applauded.

Now, it is incumbent on all with a stake in a settlement — and that includes just about every nation — to push the sides toward compromise and provide the assistance that makes an enduring deal possible.

The history of these negotiations is long and tangled. The most recent attempt to reach a deal occurred in 2010, when U.S. President Barack Obama had hoped to capitalize on his popularity in the Arab world and the revitalization of the U.S. image internationally to bring the two sides together.

Displaying both optimism — which is absolutely critical to any diplomatic success — and naivete, Mr. Obama invited leaders from both sides to Washington and said that a final peace agreement was possible within a year.

Those talks broke down over the issue of Israeli settlements on land seized in the 1967 war that Palestinians believe is an integral part of any eventual Palestinian state. The drawing of the eventual borders of this state is one of the thorniest and intractable of the issues the two sides must settle.

Others include the fate of Jerusalem, a city that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, the rights of Palestinians evicted from their land during the conflicts between Israel and its neighbors.

Since taking over as secretary of state, Mr. John Kerry has worked assiduously to restart the moribund talks. After six trips to the region since March, he convinced both sides to return to the table.

That move was made possible by the decision last weekend of the Israeli Cabinet to release 104 Palestinian political prisoners, some of whom had been in jail for over two decades.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had demanded their freedom as a precondition to talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed his Cabinet to agree to a four-stage release, which would occur over the duration of the negotiations, arguing that “monumental changes” in the Arab world and “a complex global reality” were ample reasons to take a gamble on talks.

Two days of meetings in Washington followed earlier this week, at which negotiators from the two sides agreed on “sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations on the core issues” that divide them.

The next round of talks will take place in either Israel or the Palestinian territories at an as yet-unspecified date before mid-August. The goal of which, said Mr. Kerry, “will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months.”

Why the optimism when all previous efforts have run aground amidst the seemingly intractable divisions between Israelis and Palestinians?

First, there is upheaval in the Arab world. Protests and violence are commonplace throughout the region. Civil war in Syria has distracted Damascus and kept it from being a spoiler as talks appeared possible.

The turmoil in Egypt has kept that government and like-minded sympathizers from supporting Hamas, which opposes any deal signed by Mr. Abbas; there are reports that the Egyptian military is now closing tunnels that were used to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, the discord in regional capitals lowers the costs of U.S. efforts to restart the peace talks. There is, quite frankly, less the U.S. can do elsewhere in the region.

Second, there has been a “reset” in U.S. relations with Israel in the aftermath of Mr. Obama’s re-election. Relations between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu were tough and tense during the U.S. president’s first term, but Mr. Obama’s trip to Israel earlier this year changed perceptions that he was unfriendly toward America’s long-standing partner.

This gives the secretary of state, a much practiced politician and deal maker like Mr. Netanyahu, more standing to mediate. At the same time, Mr. Kerry has been reaching out to Arabs too, winning Arab League endorsement of land swaps as well as a statement backing resumption of peace talks.

Ultimately, however, the same formidable obstacles of long standing remain:

What will be the borders of the two states?

Will Israel give up the settlements it has built on occupied territory and what will it give to a Palestinian state if it does not?

Where will the displaced Palestinians go?

Will they enjoy a right of return?

What will be the status of Jerusalem, a holy city claimed by three major religions and Israelis and Palestinians alike as the heart of their nation?

And what rights and powers will the new Palestinian state have? Will it be demilitarized as Israel insists?

In the past, negotiators have tried to pluck low-hanging fruit, the easily reached agreements, to build confidence and create momentum for the eventual big deal. This time, however, “all of the issues that are at the core of a permanent accord will be negotiated simultaneously.”

It is an ambitious formula, but as Israel’s chief negotiator Justice Minister Tzipi Livni explained: “History is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.”

It is now up to those realists, and friends of Israel and the Palestinians, who must do all that is possible to make enduring peace the only real choice for the politicians in both nations.