Commentary Magazine


More Obama Problems: Kerry’s Peace Push

When Secretary of State John Kerry pushed Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree to nine months of peace talks earlier this year, his decision was greeted with widespread pessimism. Even those observers who can usually be counted upon to support the peace process were skeptical about his chances of success. After three months of low-profile talks, there is no sign that Kerry’s initiative is anything other than the fool’s errand that most serious observers believed it was in the first place. But the stalemate over basic issues that has led to the deadlock may be what Kerry was counting on after all. That’s the opinion of some in the Israeli opposition who are saying that the U.S. will intervene in the negotiations in January and present both sides with its own peace plan that it will try to impose on the parties.

According to Zehava Gal-on, the head of the left-wing Meretz Party, Palestinian and American sources are telling her that Kerry is preparing for a diplomatic master stroke in 2014 that will force Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA head Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a deal along lines more or less dictated by Washington. As the Times of Israel reports:

The Obama administration plans to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough at the beginning of 2014,” said Gal-on. “The Americans want to move from coordinating between the two sides to a phase of active intervention.”

According to Gal-on, whose left-wing Meretz party is in the opposition, the plan is based on the pre-1967 lines with agreed land swaps and will cover all of the core issues. …

The scheme is spread out over a gradual timetable, calls for the investment of billions of dollars in the Palestinian economy, and will include suggestion for a broader regional peace treaty based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The initiative, first proposed by the Arab League in 2002, calls for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians together with normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world. Central to the initiative was the complete withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 lines and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

If true, it appears that those who accused Kerry of hubris in trying to succeed where every one of his predecessors had failed under circumstances far less propitious for peace than previous efforts were right. Even assuming that Israel will accept a deal along the problematic lines of the Arab League initiative, the American assumption that Abbas is strong enough to force the Palestinians to accept Israel’s legitimacy and end the conflict in spite of opposition from Hamas seems ludicrous. More than that, by putting pressure on Abbas to make a deal that he cannot agree to, no matter how much it gives him, Kerry may be setting in motion a train of events that could lead to more violence in 2014, not peace.

Those inclined to dismiss Gal-on’s prediction were probably dismayed by the reaction to her statement from Israel’s government. According to Haaretz, rather than deny the possibility of Kerry diving into the talks, Netanyahu told a meeting of Likud Knesset members today that Israel would consider any American proposal but would not give in to “external dictates.”

That the two sides are light years apart on basic issues is not exactly a secret. The Israelis want Abbas to agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as well as to renounce the right of return. Without that, they can have no confidence that another territorial retreat would permanently end the conflict. But not only is Abbas still talking about the refugees, he’s threatening to pull out of the talks to protest Israel building in areas that would almost certainly be included in the Jewish state in any territorial swap.

But, as many of those who warned Kerry he was making a mistake in the first place have pointed out, the balance of forces in Palestinian politics are such that Abbas is unlikely to consider signing any peace deal. Doing so would revive Hamas’s popularity and undermine his hold on the West Bank. In the past such logjams have inevitably led to new rounds of Palestinian violence as the political players in the West Bank and Gaza sought to reassert their political legitimacy by demonstrating hostility to Israel. So long as the rival parties govern the two regions, it’s hard to see a way out of the current impasse.

That is why a Kerry initiative would be so ill considered. Rather than offering the two sides in the talks a way out, what Kerry would be doing would be to back Abbas into a corner from which he might have no choice but to blow up the peace process and allow the terrorist factions within Fatah to compete with Hamas in the way they did during the second intifada.

As wiser and better diplomats who went before Kerry learned through hard experience, no outside party can force Israel and the Palestinians to make peace if both are not ready to end it. The Israelis have time and again proved they are ready to make painful sacrifices but cannot be expected to run the risk of the West Bank turning into another Gaza. That’s why any peace must mean the end of the conflict rather than merely its continuation on less advantageous terms for the Jewish state, as was the case with the Oslo Accords or its withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

But the main obstacle remains a Palestinian political culture that is still unable to come to terms with the verdict of history about Israel’s creation. Rather than raising the ante with talks that were doomed to fail and will probably be followed by more violence, Kerry would have done better to have concentrated his efforts on bigger foreign-policy problems for the U.S.—such as Syria, Egypt, and the nuclear threat from Iran—than on trying to solve a problem that is incapable of solution.

President Obama has allowed Kerry a free hand in the Middle East since he took over at Foggy Bottom and has acted at times as if he considered the secretary’s efforts a sideshow that didn’t merit his attention. But if keeping Kerry occupied in a harmless effort to make peace was Obama’s intention, that strategy may be about to blow up in his face. The president needs to consider if he wants to have to deal with the fallout—both political and diplomatic—of the disaster that Kerry appears to be cooking up. With a second term that is already turning into an unending series of scandals and political catastrophes, Obama should think twice about allowing the secretary to tie him up in a no-win situation that could make an already dismal Middle East situation look a lot worse.

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