Secretary of State John Kerry is back in Israel today attempting to breath life into the peace talks that he initiated last year. With the Palestinians refusing to accept the framework for further talks the secretary tried to broker, and the Israelis seeing little purpose in releasing more Palestinian terrorist murderers to bribe Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas if the PA won’t keep negotiating, the whole scheme is on the brink of collapse. Thus, Kerry is working furiously to try and come up with a way to entice the Israelis to give Abbas what he wants in terms of either more prisoner releases or a settlement freeze.
The latest idea on the table, which has now been publicly confirmed by U.S. officials speaking off the record, is for the U.S. to hand convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to the Israelis in exchange for the last batch of terrorists already scheduled for release from Israeli jails as well as a further group to be let go after that. Presumably this latest batch of terrorist prisoners would be enough to bribe Abbas to keep talking even though he has already signaled that he isn’t that interested in the discussions, especially if they require him to agree to measures that herald an end to the conflict with Israel. As I wrote last week, the idea of trading Pollard for murderers is a bad deal for Israel. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is to keep making concessions to Abbas then he should expect something of substance in return from the Palestinians that would bring peace closer. Doing so for the sake of Pollard makes no sense for anyone.
But the real problem here isn’t the unbalanced nature of such a deal that is not likely to be carried out anyway. Rather, it is the sense of hysteria that has been invested in the latest iteration of the Middle East peace process. Having decided to try to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed, Kerry did so by claiming that it was the region’s last chance for peace even though there was no reason to believe the conflict was in danger of re-igniting or there were reasonable prospects for success. But now that he appears to be failing, his frequent predictions of doom have become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The secretary invested time, energy, and the prestige of the United States on a negotiation that few thought had a chance because he was convinced there was no alternative and that a failure to advance a peace process that has been stuck in neutral ever since the Palestinians rejected the third Israeli offer of independence and statehood would lead to disaster. But as Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl aptly noted today, prior to the start of Kerry’s talks, “Israel and the Palestinian territories” were “an island of tranquility in a blood-drenched Middle East.” If the Palestinians preferred meaningless symbolic victories at the United Nations to statehood, such folly was rooted in Abbas’s belief that his people were not ready to give up their century-long war to destroy Israel.
Though Netanyahu has reluctantly agreed to a framework that is based on the 1967 lines, the Palestinians are still not ready to give up their “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants or to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, thereby signaling an end to the conflict. But by raising the stakes in the conflict and repeatedly warning the Israelis that they would suffer violence in the form of a third intifada and increased boycott efforts if they did not agree to peace, Kerry has raised the stakes for the Palestinians. In a foolish repeat of earlier mistakes made by the Obama administration, the Palestinian leadership is being put in a position of having to match Kerry’s warnings with provocative actions of their own. And since a resolution of these disputes is beyond Abbas’s power or will to achieve, the collapse of Kerry’s diplomacy may spiral out of control.
Continually crying that this is the “last chance” for peace is not only inaccurate—diplomats have been saying the same thing for decades and have always been wrong, since peace will come the day the Palestinians give up their illusions about re-writing history and not one day sooner—it is also the sort of sentiment that rationalizes the actions of extremists who don’t want peace on any terms.
It is true that many Israelis worry about the long-term consequences of the current impasse which leaves the West Bank in limbo while Hamas-ruled Gaza functions as the independent Palestinian state in all but name. But as Diehl says, the alternative to Kerry’s apocalyptic warnings was an embrace of the reality of a conflict that couldn’t be solved but might be managed. Measures aimed at giving the Palestinians a bigger stake in an improved economy and better governance wouldn’t have cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace but would have provided Abbas and his Fatah Party a reason to keep a lid on the territories as well as more of an incentive to think about preparing the way for eventual peace. Instead, Kerry has brought Abbas to the brink where he feels he has no alternative but to give the back of his hand to a negotiation that he never wanted to be part of in the first place. If violence in the form of a third intifada (perhaps funded in part by Iran via aid to Islamic Jihad or Hamas) follows, then it should be remembered that it was Kerry who set a potentially tragic series of events in motion.
What the secretary is learning is that as bad as a situation seems, it can only be made worse by hubris and naïveté, qualities Kerry possesses in abundance. Whether or not he manages to bribe either the Israelis or the Palestinians to keep talking in the coming days, the most important point to be gleaned from this chapter is that stoking fear in order to build support for peace isn’t merely counter-productive. It’s a recipe for disaster.