Commentary Magazine


Kerry’s Purposeless Shawarma Diplomacy

Feeling a bit peckish, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Middle East to get some shawarma. At least that’s how Kerry’s trip will seem to those in the region, who probably watched in utter confusion as Kerry made a big deal out of his trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories but spent his time in classic Kerry fashion: mumbling opaque and equivocal platitudes that could have been issued from Washington, just without the shawarma.

Though it’s probably worth pointing out that Kerry reportedly ate turkey shawarma, which of course isn’t shawarma at all but rather a ludicrous shawarma impostor whose proliferation is a terrifying sign of impending total civilizational collapse, and thus Kerry didn’t even accomplish that one goal. (The fault here lies, however, with the Israeli side, not the Palestinian side, as Ron Kampeas explains.) The Washington Post reports on how Kerry summed up his shuttle diplomacy:

“I’m not going to comment on what was asked for or not asked for,” Kerry told reporters at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv at the conclusion of a two-day visit shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He was headed to Ethi­o­pia for the next leg of his overseas trip.

Kerry called on Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from “provocative” actions that could derail U.S. attempts to inaugurate a new round of peace talks. He reiterated U.S. opposition to Israeli settlement building but said the issue should not be a blockade to talks. Settlements, like other long-standing irritants and disagreements, will have to be resolved in a final peace deal, Kerry said….

The United States understands that settlement expansions “can be deemed by some to be provocative, and they are not necessarily constructive with respect to the process” of resuming talks, Kerry said. “So, it is our hope that there will be a minimal effort there.”

Although some building is beyond the direct control of Netanyahu’s government, the timing of other construction is within the government’s power, Kerry said. Avoiding such construction could “make a difference here in the next months,” when substantial negotiations could begin, he added.

“Peace is actually possible, notwithstanding the doubts that some people have because of past disappointments,” Kerry said. “It is our hope that everybody will stay focused on the prize, focused on the goal.”

There was no word on whether Kerry encouraged them to display the eye of the tiger or reminded them that they miss 100 percent of the shots they don’t take. But the Israeli side is probably satisfied with Kerry’s word salad on settlements that can’t be interpreted in any definitive way, and relieved because any time Kerry intervenes in an issue and doesn’t do any real damage is about all you can ask for.

Since President Obama has already lifted his administration’s demand that Israel cease building homes in Jewish neighborhoods as a precondition for peace talks, Kerry’s reaffirmation of that didn’t make any news. What’s the chiddush, as we might have said in shiur. Though the Palestinians are wrong to object to negotiations without preconditions and to push for a settlement freeze, they are right to ask why Kerry made the trip. And in fact, if direct negotiations between the two sides are really the American goal here, Kerry needn’t have flown halfway around the world to say so. You shouldn’t have, Mr. Secretary. No, really, you shouldn’t have.

Though it’s a point we’ve made in this space consistently, it bears repeating if Kerry’s shawarma diplomacy is what he says it is: an indication that we are witnessing the beginning of that hardy staple of second presidential terms–the push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. And that point is that the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which the most progress–some might argue the only real progress–was made by the two sides when negotiations were held away from the press cameras and in the absence of an American president looking for a legacy.

There is nothing wrong with American officials encouraging negotiations, but there is something very wrong with negotiating over the prospect of negotiating. If the Palestinians need concessions in order to reject peace in person rather than over the phone, then it is quite obvious they don’t actually want to negotiate, nor do they have any intention of negotiating in good faith. A concession just for showing up makes negotiations conditional upon negotiations, which is more than faintly ridiculous and surely a waste of time and political capital for everyone involved.

Mahmoud Abbas has never shown any real desire to shake up the status quo. If he wants to negotiate, he knows where to find his Israeli interlocutors, who will join him. As for Kerry, there is plenty of good shawarma in the States.

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