After weeks of looking silly chasing his tail in what appeared to be a futile attempt to revive Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry is looking like a winner this afternoon as he was able to announce that he had been able to “establish a basis” for a new round of negotiations of between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Assuming the Palestinians actually show up next week in Washington as Kerry thinks they will, this will be something of a victory for a secretary who has gone from humiliation to humiliation during his brief term in office. Even if all it amounts to is a photo op, Kerry can claim it is evidence of the diplomatic prowess he thinks he possesses. But before he starts writing his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (if it isn’t already composed at least in his head), we need to understand that it is highly unlikely that anything good may come of this initiative. Even worse, the price the United States has paid for getting even this far may be far higher than any possible good that could come from this event.
It should be understood that the tentative and highly conditioned agreement to return to negotiations was only won by an American agreement to accept Palestinian preconditions that President Obama had already rejected and that would, in no small part, tilt the diplomatic playing field against Israel:
Ahmed Majdalani, a PLO executive committee member, told the Associated Press that Kerry has proposed holding talks for six to nine months focusing on the key issues of borders and security arrangements. He said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations and assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months.
This came after President Obama phoned Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday to pressure him to cooperate with Kerry. Israel had already agreed to talk without preconditions, but apparently the president wanted Netanyahu’s assurance that he would not protest the way the secretary had buckled to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s conditions. But having arrived at negotiations in this manner, neither Kerry nor Obama seems to have considered what comes next. The Palestinians have already made it abundantly clear that they won’t actually negotiate in good faith but will only show up expecting the U.S. to deliver Israeli concessions to them on a silver platter. Even if he wanted to sign an accord, Abbas hasn’t the power to speak for all Palestinians. Since that is a certain formula for failure, it is incumbent on Washington to understand that another breakdown in talks could serve as a new excuse for Palestinian violence.
The reason why rational observers have been so wary of Kerry’s initiative is not just the fact that the Palestinians had no interest in returning to negotiations they’ve been boycotting for four and a half years. Both Israel and the Palestinians didn’t wish to obstruct Kerry’s desire for talks. He might have left off once the Palestinians demonstrated their lack of interest, but since he persisted in this manner, they felt they had no choice but to show up.
But Abbas and the PA are too weak to agree to any deal that would conclusively end a conflict that neither Hamas nor much of Fatah actually wants to end. Recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn, is something that no Palestinian leader can afford to do at this point in history. The culture of Palestinian politics that has revolved around the delegitimization of Israel and Jewish history makes it impossible. That’s why they’ve already rejected three Israelis offers of a Palestinian state including almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem. So even if Netanyahu were foolish enough to agree to withdrawals that would, in effect, recreate the independent Palestinian terror state that already exists in Gaza in the West Bank, Abbas still can’t say yes.
But by forcing this confrontation at a time when conditions simply don’t exist for a resolution of the conflict, Kerry is not just occupying himself with an issue that is clearly less pressing that the other crises in the Middle East like Egypt, Syria or the Iranian nuclear threat. Since failure is foreordained and the Palestinians are likely to bolt the talks at the first opportunity, what will follow will be far worse than merely a continuation of the present stalemate. The Palestinians will treat any outcome—even one created by their intransigence—as an excuse for either an upsurge in violence against Israel or an effort to use their status at the United Nations to work to further isolate the Jewish state.
Just as damaging, by again putting the U.S. seal of approval on the Palestinian demand for the 1967 lines as Israel’s borders, Kerry and Obama have also worsened Israel’s position once the talks collapse. Any outcome other than total Israeli acquiescence to Palestinian demands would also serve as justification for more European Union sanctions on Israel, even, as is likely, if such a surrender were to fail to be enough to entice the Palestinians to take yes for an answer.
Netanyahu will be criticized by many in his party for going along with what is likely to be at best, a farce, and, at worst, a dangerous trap. But having already rightly said that he was willing to negotiate with Abbas under any circumstance, he must send representatives to Washington. But neither he, the people of Israel, nor the Jewish state’s friends in this country should be under any illusions that what will ensue from Kerry’s diplomatic experiment will be helpful.
As much as Israel wants and needs peace, the conflict is at a stage when the best that can be hoped for is that it be managed in such a way as to minimize violence and encourage Palestinian development. Though Kerry is offering the PA lots of cash, there is little chance it will be used appropriately or get the desired result.
Next week’s talks may be heralded as an unprecedented opportunity for peace, but the odds are, we will look back on this moment the way we do foolhardy efforts such as President Clinton’s Camp David summit in 2000 that set the stage for a bloody intifada that cost the lives of over a thousand Jews and far more Palestinians. The agreement to talk about talking is a pyrrhic victory for Kerry. Those who cheer this effort should think hard about who will bear the responsibility for the bloodshed that could result from Kerry’s folly.