Secretary of State John Kerry’s disastrous attempt to bring peace to the Middle East is not going quietly into the night after its collapse in the last month. Kerry made clear his own prejudices, as well as his misunderstanding about the reality of the conflict, when he told the Trilateral Commission that Israel would become an “apartheid state” if it failed to make peace. Though Kerry had to offer a non-apology apology in which he regretted his choice of words, the slur illustrated his own animus for the Jewish state’s positions. It also was fuel to the fire for the campaign of hatred that is bolstered by such canards. But not satisfied with that shot fired over the bow of the Netanyahu government, the administration doubled down on the “Israel is to blame” argument with an interview given by anonymous “senior American officials” with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea available here on YNet.com in English.
There is nothing terribly surprising with the postmortem on the talks, the source for which (if you believe Haaretz) is believed to be Kerry’s envoy Martin Indyk. Indyk, who is resigning his post as U.S. negotiator and going back to his Washington sinecure at the Brookings Institution, has a long history of bad blood with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dating back to his controversial tenure as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the 1990s. But rather than merely file this away as another example of the poisonous personal politics that can intrude into diplomacy, a close yet critical reading of the interview reveals more about why the Obama administration’s peace efforts failed than anything about what the Israelis have done. Like the public statements made by both President Obama and Secretary Kerry in which they praised Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas while trashing Netanyahu, the U.S. has repeated the Clinton administration’s mistake in whitewashing Yasir Arafat in the 1990s. In doing so, they have effectively made the already slim chances for peace even more unlikely.
The details of Indyk’s complaints about Israel aren’t terribly persuasive. Though he attempts to portray Netanyahu as intransigent, even his interviewer is forced to point out that even the prime minister’s rival Tzipi Livni, whom Indyk praises extravagantly as a “heroine,” admitted that in fact it was Netanyahu who had moved off of his previous positions on a possible agreement while Abbas had not moved an inch.
Indyk counters that by trashing Israel’s entirely reasonable demands for security guarantees that would ensure that West Bank territory it gave up would not turn into another version of Gaza after Ariel Sharon’s disastrous 2005 retreat. He also claims that Abbas made great concessions in agreeing to a deal in which Israel would keep Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and 80 percent of West Bank settlements. But having agreed to terms that roughly match what Netanyahu is believed to have offered, Abbas walked away from the talks rather than negotiate their implementation. That isn’t peacemaking. It’s obstruction that allowed him to avoid taking responsibility for making a peace that he fears his people don’t want.
Indyk also tells us a great deal about administration cluelessness when he admits he didn’t understand why Abbas refused to even discuss recognizing Israel as a Jewish state even when the Israelis were preparing versions of a statement that would at the same time recognize “Palestine” as the nation state of Palestinian Arabs.
“We couldn’t understand why it bothered him so much,” the anonymous U.S. official said. Really? Saying those two symbolic words—“Jewish state”—would have gone a long way to convincing the Israeli public that Abbas was sincere about wanting to end the conflict for all time. His refusal signaled that the PA and its new partner Hamas want no part of any treaty that signals the end of their century-old war against Zionism. If Indyk and Kerry didn’t understand the significance of this issue, they are not only demonstrating their unwillingness to hold the Palestinians accountable, they are also showing an alarming lack of diplomatic skill.
Finally, Indyk’s focus on Israel’s diplomatic offenses during the process is also important. Indyk can’t let go of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s criticism of Kerry as a man in search of a Nobel Peace Prize, terming it a “great insult.” But it had nothing to do with the negotiations and might well have been a sign that the leading right-winger in the Cabinet was alarmed at how much Netanyahu was conceding in the talks.
Lastly, Indyk falls back on the same settlements excuse that Israel’s critics always cite as proof that the Jewish state is obstructing peace. But the focus on how many “settlements” were being built during the talks is a red herring because almost all of the “settlements”—which are actually merely new houses being built in existing communities and not new towns—were being built in exactly the places Abbas supposedly had conceded would stay in Israel. In other words, the building had no impact on the peace terms. For Indyk to specifically blame the announcement that several hundred new apartments would be built in the Gilo section of Jerusalem as the straw that broke the camel’s back of peace is absurd. Gilo, a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in the capital, would remain inside of Israel even if peace were reached. How, then, could a few more apartments in a place that would never be surrendered by Israel serve as an acceptable rationale for a Palestinian walkout, as Indyk indicates?
The answer to that question is that the Americans are so invested in Abbas’s shaky credibility as a peacemaker that they were prepared to swallow any excuse from him. The truth is Abbas never had any genuine interest in peace and fled the talks the first chance he got. He indicated that lack of interest by going back to the United Nations in an end run around the talks and sealed it by making a deal with Hamas rather than Israel. But all Indyk can do is blame Netanyahu. The interview tells us all we need to know about how inept American diplomacy has become.