Commentary Magazine


Doomsday Diplomacy and the Middle East

What happens if the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry end without a deal? This is a question hovering not so discreetly in the background of the renewed negotiations, because there are only so many times hope can triumph over experience. To peace processors, there is never a downside to negotiations. To pessimists, the current assemblage of personalities has created a perfect storm of skepticism.

Kerry, leading the process, has neither the charisma nor the depth of knowledge to inspire confidence. His envoy, Martin Indyk, was part of the Clinton team in the lead-up to Camp David, which ended in disaster and a Palestinian terror campaign against Jewish civilians. Indyk wrote a memoir of his experience that was highly readable and full of entertaining stories but riddled throughout with contradictions, hypocrisy, and partisan point-scoring to a degree uncommon for modern diplomats.

Indyk also does not hide his disdain (and Clinton’s) for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the book. When Bill Clinton got directly involved in the Israeli elections to help Netanyahu’s opponent Shimon Peres, Netanyahu complained to Indyk, who recalls Clinton’s belief that because Netanyahu had Republican allies in Congress, Netanyahu was “getting his just deserts.” (The comparison is so ridiculous on its face that the reader simply assumes neither Clinton nor Indyk actually believes it, but that they thought nothing of casually insulting the Israeli prime minister while overtly trying to oust him from office.)

The Palestinians are led by Mahmoud Abbas, who resolutely refused to consider negotiating until Israel released terrorists and child murderers that Abbas could fete as heroes while the rest of the world tried to pretend this wasn’t as grotesque and barbaric as it quite obviously was. Israel is led again by Netanyahu, who thanks to the prisoner release will have even less political space at home to make the one-sided concessions usually required in the post-Oslo era, and probably doesn’t forget that in the past, Indyk’s presence in Israel often signaled that the White House’s attempts to remove Netanyahu from office were underway.

But Indyk’s role as a harbinger of doom is actually quite appropriate to the current negotiations, because that is exactly how Kerry’s team seems to approach this task. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius described it this way earlier this week:

What Kerry has done, in effect, is get the two sides to grab hold of a stick of dynamite. If they can’t defuse it within nine months through an agreement, it’s going to blow up: The moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank would collapse; militant Palestinians would take statehood to the United Nations, probably this time with broad European support; an angry Arab League would withdraw its peace initiative. It would be a big mess for everyone.

That prompted Peter Feaver, a former Bush administration official and current writer at Foreign Policy’s website, to respond yesterday by correctly pointing out that Kerry’s peace process logic is uncomfortably close to the argument for the budget sequester:

The pill proved bitter, but apparently not as bitter as a genuine compromise on fiscal matters. The Budget Control Act dynamite blew up and, even worse, is scheduled to blow up again. And this time, few seem to expect the blowup to be averted.

I suppose one could argue at a stretch that Israelis and Palestinians are more inclined to compromise under explosive threats than Democrats and Republicans since failure would result not just in loss of programs but perhaps immediate loss of life. Yet both Democrats and Republicans have claimed that real lives are at risk in the sequester. And as bad as partisanship is these days, there is a far-richer record of two-sided compromise in the U.S. Congress than in Israel-Palestine.

That is correct. But Feaver probably doesn’t go far enough. History tells us not only to keep expectations modest in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but that the prospect of the peace talks’ violent collapse is certainly no deterrent to the Palestinian leadership’s inclination to walk away. Indyk knows this from his own personal experience. The argument that Indyk’s supporters seem to be making, that his record’s conspicuous lack of success has given him the necessary experience to get it right this time, is less than convincing. Where’s the indication he has learned his lesson?

For all these reasons, there has been an assumption that there must be a Plan B. But the virtue of a Plan B only holds if the two sides don’t know about it, otherwise they will have no reason not to wait and see what else is on offer. And the existence of a Plan B completely undermines Kerry’s sequester approach. It also explains why some Israelis are understandably wary of the whole process: if talks fail, Israelis aren’t going to be the ones to launch a terror campaign; they’ll be the targets. And finally, the very fact there might be a credible Plan B raises the question: if there are modest but helpful steps that can be taken without descending into eschatological chaos, wouldn’t it be more responsible to try those first?

Perhaps Martin Indyk will succeed where Martin Indyk has failed, and maybe John Kerry has a Plan B because he doesn’t trust John Kerry. But that’s not a sales pitch that will convince the doubters.

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