Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that “well placed U.S. sources” said Secretary of State John Kerry was planning to convene a summit in June at which the United States, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority would, with the help of Turkey and Egypt, set a new agenda for peace talks. The starting point for this push would be the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the principle of “two states for two peoples.” But even before the idea had begun to percolate, the administration is publicly backing away from summit plans.
Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council Spokesperson: said “We have seen the media reports of a planned Middle East Peace summit in Washington. These reports are not true. We remain committed to working with the Israelis and the Palestinians to achieve a lasting peace through direct negotiations.”
What’s going on here? It’s hard to say with certainty but it appears that after four years of having a secretary of state who understood that the White House is the only place policy is made in the Obama administration, the switch from Hillary Clinton to Kerry involves a change in attitude as well as personnel. But whether Kerry is trying to slip the leash or not, it’s clear that whoever it is that has vetoed the summit understands the situation better than Kerry. A summit is an invitation to diplomatic disaster, not peace.
Kerry may think bringing together the Islamist governments of Egypt and Turkey into the process may give PA leader Mahmoud Abbas the diplomatic cover he needs to take risks for peace. But far from helping bring about the goal of a two state solution, having two nations that are allied with Hamas (which governs the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza) at the table merely makes it clear that Abbas doesn’t have the power to make peace even if he had the will to do so.
President Obama was right when he stated last month during his trip to Israel that direct negotiations between the two parties without preconditions was the only path to an agreement. Yet that is precisely why Abbas has sought to evade such talks. He knows he hasn’t the ability to sell the Palestinian people on a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. He also knows that the Arab peace initiative which Kerry thinks will draw Israel’s neighbors into the talks is a non-starter because it is antithetical to the notion of two states for two peoples.
Though the Arab initiative speaks of recognition of Israel, it eschews any understanding that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. It specifically insists upon implementation of the so-called Palestinian “right of return” that would swamp Israel with millions of the descendants of Arab refugees from 1948.
What’s so depressing about this idea is not just that it is foolish but that it shows Kerry hasn’t been paying much attention to diplomatic history. There have been a number of summits whose purpose was to broker Middle East peace dating back to Rhodes in 1949, Madrid in 1991 and most recently, Annapolis in 2008. While Madrid could be said to have at least initiated a dynamic where direct talks became imaginable, these gatherings were mostly about photo opportunities and the chance for world leaders to grandstand than any real breakthrough. Even worse by raising unrealistic expectations with a summit, Kerry could be setting the stage for a new round of violence where Fatah and Hamas would again compete for popularity with bombs rather than state building.
The only possible scenario in which a summit might make sense would be if Kerry miraculously achieved an agreement from the PA to start negotiations in advance. But given Abbas’s demands for Israeli concessions in advance as a precondition for talks — something Obama specifically rejected — it’s difficult to see how that happens.
If Kerry really wants to help the situation, he should concentrate on plans for economic development in the West Bank that would improve the lives of Palestinians and, at least in theory, give them an incentive to back peace rather than more conflict. But with the forced exit of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, pumping more money into the area may do more to enrich Abbas’s corrupt Fatah cronies than to help the Palestinian people. His desire to give the PA control over areas that Oslo designates as solely under Israeli control also raises questions about the motives of this effort.
Doubling down on failure is a loser’s bet but that’s exactly what Kerry appears to be doing right now. His desire for a show that would highlight his pose as a peacemaker who can succeed where every predecessor failed is in keeping with his character. But if President Obama wants to keep the region from blowing up the Israel-Palestinian conflict at a time when he should be concentrating on Syria and Iran, he needs to make sure Kerry doesn’t go off the leash again.