There is a Middle Eastern joke that goes like this: "There are two possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a realistic one and a miraculous one. The realistic solution is Divine Intervention. The miraculous solution is an agreement between the two sides."
As Secretary of State John Kerry finalizes his proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the reality on the ground does not give much cause for optimism. Jewish settlements are expanding, eating up land that would otherwise become part of a future state of Palestine. Radical Jewish settlers threaten violence against both Palestinians and Israeli soldiers with so-called "price tag" attacks that even the Israeli government has denounced as terrorism. Palestinian rockets are fired almost daily from Gaza against Israeli towns. Hamas continues to reject Israel's right to exist - within any borders - and openly renounces nonviolent resistance and respect for human rights. Just this week, a spokesman for Hamas' education ministry declared that "Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and the Magna Carta are all alien to our culture."
Regional volatility and uncertainties on Israel's borders make negotiation all the more difficult. Egypt is in turmoil and Syria is racked by a sectarian civil war that pits Iranian-backed Hezbollah against Sunni jihadists - disparate groups that share a virulent anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel. The potential threat of a nuclear Iran has not dissipated, making the Palestinian issue seem less important to many Israelis. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are focused on Syria and Iran, to the detriment of the peace process.
Benjamin Netanyahu sees Israel encircled by security threats, while Mahmoud Abbas gets little backing from the Arab world. Given the unlikelihood of the two sides reaching any kind of agreement on their own, a detailed U.S. proposal might be just what's needed. But is the timing right?
Tangible achievements in Middle East peace have always been accompanied by a "synchronicity" of effective leadership - a moment in time when leaders on all sides, simultaneously, had both the political will and the capacity to reach an accord. Often, this has required American leadership to be in sync as well. Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy between Tel Aviv, Cairo and Damascus after the 1973 War, which produced the disengagement agreements on the Sinai and Golan Heights, required strong leadership in all four countries. When bilateral negotiations between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin ground to a halt, it took forceful third-party mediation by U.S. president Jimmy Carter to reach the Camp David Peace Accords. Oslo required the right people at the right time - Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yassir Arafat. When Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist, a window of opportunity for peace was sealed shut.
On the other hand, there have been numerous times when leadership was not in sync. At Madrid in 1991, the Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir had no interest in negotiating a peace deal with anyone, nor did Syria's Hafiz al-Assad, and Arafat was smarting and alienated by his ill-fated decision to support Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. President George H. W. Bush may well have been ready and willing to broker some deals, but the regional actors were not. Camp David II failed in 2000 in part because Arafat was unwilling to negotiate a deal on Jerusalem or even make a counter-offer to Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak's peace proposals. At the 2007 Annapolis peace summit near the end of George W. Bush's presidency, there was a noticeable absence of strong and effective leadership among all the parties, Israeli, Palestinian and American. They were all just going through the motions. As U.S. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller once observed, "Weak leaders are prisoners of their politics rather than masters of their constituencies."
With Kerry seemingly more committed to pushing for a peace deal than his boss in the White House, with Benjamin Netanyahu a voluntary hostage to his more hawkish coalition partners, and with Abbas having little sway over the spoiler Hamas, the possibility of synchronicity today appears slim. Divine intervention may be a more likely scenario.