The launch of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians for the first time in nearly two years is being greeted with a justifiable mix of skepticism, fear and hope.
Reasons for the skepticism are obvious. Given the decades of failed attempts to bring peace to the land and the fact that the Palestinians had to practically be dragged to the table, it's hard to fathom that a new deal is really on the horizon.
Reasons for the fear, too, are many and justifiable: Fear that Israel will be pressured to make concessions that could jeopardize its security; fear that failure to reach an agreement will spark more violence; fear that the Palestinian prescription for peace is just a ruse for a long-term plan to attack and destroy the Jewish state.
Still, in this season of reflections and new beginnings, it's hard not to harbor hope: The hope that the dynamics can be different this time around; that bold vision and courageous leadership among all the parties can finally change the equation; and that a peaceful, stable and democratic Israel is not an elusive dream.
We all know that the path to peace — if it's even still visible beneath the years of rubble — will be strewn with major hurdles along the way. Mahmoud Abbas has already threatened to derail the talks if Israel's 10-month moratorium on settlements is not extended at the end of this month. And Tuesday's terrorist attack that killed four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, near Kiryat Arba in the West Bank, was as predictable as it was despicable. It's no surprise that Hamas took responsibility, given its longstanding pattern of violence as a ploy to thwart any negotiations.
At the same time, the contours of a final-status agreement are well-known when it comes to borders and security. As David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who devotes his career to studying such issues, put it: "Each side basically knows what the other side wants, and the differences are narrower" than people think on those big issues.
The thornier matters are the return of the refugees — an absolute nonstarter for anyone who values Israel as a Jewish state — and the future of Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a lot riding on his shoulders as he leads Israel into these negotiations. And it is clear he is taking this responsibility seriously. "We won't be satisfied with papers and promises," he told a group of Likud activists prior to his Tuesday departure for Washington. "We want real peace agreements that guarantee the security of Israel, and the benefits of peace and prosperity for Israel and its neighbors, and if possible for the rest of the Arab world."
One thing is clear: It's not enough to come to the table, though getting there is significant. But just like getting to shul on the High Holidays, it's what happens there — and beyond — that counts.