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Kerry’s Middle East Folly Has a Price

Egypt is coming apart at the seams. The Syrian civil war has taken the lives of over 100,000 people and the Assad regime—which President Obama has demanded give up power—appears to be winning with the help of Russian and Iranian arms and Hezbollah ground forces. Iran has vowed to continue enriching uranium, as it gets closer to amassing enough to build a nuclear weapon. And the Putin government in Russia continues to thumb its nose at the United States by refusing—as did China—to hand over NSA leaker/spy Edward Snowden.

With all that on its plate, you’d think America’s foreign policy chief would be up to his neck dealing with these crises. But in case you hadn’t heard, Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t paying much attention to any of that in the last few days. Instead, Kerry was shuttling back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah like a low-level functionary attempting to craft an agreement that would finally bring the Palestinians back to the Middle East peace talks they’ve been boycotting for four and a half years. But at the end of his fifth such effort since taking office in February, Kerry left the region empty-handed again having failed to convince the Palestinians to talk while claiming that he is getting closer to success. He says just a little more effort will put him over the top, so expect him to be back again in the near future hoping to finally achieve his long-sought photo opportunity–though there is little reason to believe such an event would actually bring the conflict closer to resolution.

We’re supposed to think Kerry’s devotion to Middle East peace is admirable, but the more one looks at the situation, it’s clear the secretary is doing more harm than good. It’s not just that his obsession with the peace process is a mistake. It’s that he’s making it clear that he either doesn’t care much about what are obviously far more critical problems or illustrating that the president has given him the green light to concentrate on a dead-end diplomatic shuttle because in this administration the secretary of state doesn’t have much influence on American foreign policy. But no matter whether it is the former or the latter—and foreign policy is something that is run in this administration by the White House, leaving Kerry to chase his tail as much as he likes—it must be admitted that neither option inspires much confidence in this government’s ability to cope with a world in crisis.

One might say that Kerry’s furious effort to do what all of his predecessors have tried and failed to accomplish does no harm and perhaps a little good. But as the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz rightly noted in a column today, what Kerry is doing is not just futile but an act that consciously ignores the real problem obstructing Middle East diplomacy: the need to change the climate on the ground that makes a commitment to peaceful coexistence impossible. But instead he concentrates his efforts on high-profile diplomacy that only sets the region up for disappointment that is more likely to lead to more bloodshed.

The problem isn’t that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (who, it should be remembered, doesn’t speak for all Palestinians since Gaza is ruled by his Hamas rivals) can’t find a way to compromise. It’s that the Palestinians are still thinking and speaking in terms that show they aren’t willing to accept the permanence or the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. As Horovitz writes:

The path to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation does not run along the route much traveled by the well-intentioned Secretary Kerry between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Pulling Abbas and Netanyahu back to the table will only presage another failure — and the Second Intifada demonstrated how catastrophic the consequences can be.

Where the United States should be placing its energies, and its leverage, and its money, is in encouraging those frameworks that will create a climate in which the Palestinians actually recognize an interest in making true peace on terms that Israel can reasonably live with (terms that do not leave Israel vulnerable to military threat, and do not seek to alter the country’s demographic balance), because the Jews aren’t going anywhere, and Palestinian independence can only be attained in partnership with the Jewish state. The US should be supporting educational programs, and grass-roots interactions, and media channels that offer an honest perspective on the history of our conflict, and that promote a mutually beneficial future of co-existence. It should neither fund, nor encourage others to fund, institutions and organizations that perpetuate false narratives and consequent false grievances.

Change the climate. Gradually create an atmosphere of mutual respect, and a shared, fervent desire for an accommodation. Then you won’t have to be cajoling reluctant leaders back to the peace table.

But rather than concentrate on such productive efforts, Kerry is doubling down on what has failed repeatedly in the past. That he is unabashed by the humiliating nature of the repeated failure of his efforts says a lot about his enormous self-esteem and cluelessness (something that played a not inconsiderable part of his 2004 presidential election defeat). But that he should be subjecting the country to such a spectacle at the same time that he is conspicuously ignoring other problems which are far more urgent says a lot about his stature in the administration as well as his judgment.

President Obama is acting as if he thinks allowing Kerry to waste his time in this manner has no impact on how America is perceived around the world. But if so, it’s a terrible mistake. Rather than focus on genuine crises on which American policy can have an impact, Kerry is merely repeating the mistakes made by his predecessors with little consciousness that he will likely reap the same consequences. Though President Obama came into office convinced that he would raise America’s prestige abroad, the sheer volume of foreign policy disasters going on at the same time while the secretary of state is immersed in a fool’s errand makes it appear that it has never been lower. That the secretary of state would behave in such a manner at a moment in history when other regional crises require immediate attention graphically illustrates not only his incompetence but also that of the president.


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