Secretary of State John Kerry is playing with fire. Having embarked on a high-profile effort to revive the moribund Middle East peace process, Kerry has acted as if there is no downside to ratcheting up pressure on the parties with little apparent chance of actually achieving progress. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is eager to avoid blame for Kerry’s inevitable failure but rather than picking up on the mixed signals coming from Ramallah, the secretary continued with this line of argument today in a news conference in which he sought to create a deadline for starting talks:
“Long before September we need to be showing some kind of progress in some way because I don’t think we have the luxury of that kind of time,” he said in a joint news conference with his Kuwaiti counterpart.
“Time is the enemy of a peace process,” Mr. Kerry said. “The passage of time allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don’t want things to happen.”
That sounds wise, but the mention of September—a reference to the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations where the Palestinians are likely to make mischief—is ominous. As much as Kerry likes to think he is the consummate diplomat who is orchestrating a momentous move toward peace, with his decision to try to rush the parties into a negotiation with no evidence of common ground or an opening for an agreement what he is actually doing is setting the region up for a blowup that could have been avoided. Instead of listening to the parties and seeing that the Palestinians are not ready to make the sort of sacrifices needed for peace, Kerry is blundering along, blind to the fact that the real enemy of peace is the hate that fuels the conflict, not an artificial deadline.
The entire premise of Kerry’s initiative is the notion that rushing to peace is necessary since the status quo is untenable and likely to lead to trouble. But what he fails to see is that as unpalatable as the present situation might be for both sides, it is infinitely preferable to one where the Palestinians think they can gain from outrageous behavior or violence. Since Abbas can’t even bring himself to talk without preconditions that would require Israel to accede to all of his demands in advance of negotiations, even if Kerry can drag him to the table, everyone on both sides knows there’s little chance he will stay there. A failure to negotiate is bad enough, as we have seen for the last four and a half years since Abbas last fled talks with Israel in order to avoid giving an answer to an Israeli peace offer. But negotiations that are doomed to failure are even worse. That’s something American diplomats should remember from the last time they tried to muscle Israel and the Palestinians into an agreement at Camp David in the summer of 2000. That led to the second intifada and over a thousand slaughtered Jews and even more dead Palestinians.
Kerry thinks by ignoring Abbas’s prevarications he can somehow get both parties to yes. But he would do better to pay attention to what Abbas is saying to his own people and fellow Arabs rather than the contradictory statements about talks coming from Ramallah aimed at Western audiences.
As Palestine Media Watch reports, Abbas continues to spread libels about Israel and Jews in the Arab media. He recently said the following to the Saudi paper Al Watan earlier this month:
All these [Israeli] actions indicate an evil and dangerous plot to destroy Al-Aqsa [Mosque] and build the alleged Temple. Unfortunately, these dangers, which are clear for everyone to see, have yet to receive proper Arab, Islamic and international responses.”
Abbas’s reference to the “alleged” Temple is of piece with the PA campaign that has long alleged that Jews have no historical connection to Jerusalem. As PMW recalls:
In a speech at the Arab Summit in 2010, Abbas told Arab leaders that taking Jerusalem away from Israel is a religious Islamic obligation of the highest level, a “fard ayn” – a personal Islamic commandment incumbent on every Muslim:
Abbas: “I say to the leaders of our Arab nation and to its peoples: Jerusalem and its environs are a trust that Allah entrusted to us. Saving it [Jerusalem] from the settlement monster and the danger of Judaization and confiscation is a personal [Islamic] commandment [Arabic: fard ayn] incumbent on all of us. Therefore, I call all of you to serious and urgent action to save [Jerusalem] and to make available all possibilities in order to strengthen our resolve and to maintain its historical, cultural and religious character.”
It is these attitudes that are the obstacle to peace, not settlements or Israeli skepticism about peace or even time. The artificial deadline Kerry is setting won’t create an accord so long as Abbas continues to believe that any acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy will be seen as a betrayal of Palestinian nationalism. What the region needs is actually more time for the Palestinians to come to grips with the need to alter this culture of hate, not a rush to talks with no solution in sight.