Even before he became secretary of state earlier this year, John Kerry’s high opinion of his own talents was not exactly a secret. Thus, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that he embarked on two quests that diplomats less affected by hubris (i.e. his cautious predecessor Hillary Clinton) shied away from. Both the renewed effort to craft a nuclear deal with Iran and the decision to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were long shots at best. But now that he has achieved, at least in theory, one of his two goals, Kerry seems even more confident of accomplishing the second as well. Skeptics abound about the value of the interim deal signed last month in Geneva with Iran. But the applause the accord has won him from the foreign establishment that was always more worried about the possibility that the West would have to actually do something to stop a nuclear Iran has renewed his confidence that he can do something even more unlikely than bring the ayatollahs to the table: achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Thus, Kerry is back in Israel and demanding that both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority accept the security provisions he has envisioned for the aftermath of a peace deal. Even more, reports say he is telling both the Netanyahu government and Mahmoud Abbas’s PA regime he expects them both to accept a framework for an accord by the end of January. When critics point out the obstacles to peace, Kerry merely reiterates his optimism that seems rooted more in ego than a coherent vision for solving a problem that almost no one else thinks is capable of resolution. But the problem here goes deeper than Kerry’s self-regard. Kerry’s achievement on Iran is fool’s gold that is not comparable to the challenge between Israel and the Palestinians.
The deal with Iran was possible because both the Obama administration and the Iranian regime were interested in avoiding a conflict. Had Kerry insisted on real progress toward eliminating the Iranian nuclear program, he would not have discarded the impressive economic and military leverage the U.S. held over Tehran. He accepted Iran’s refusal to give up enriching uranium and dismantle its facilities, demands rooted in years of United Nations Security Council resolutions, and settled for an agreement on the ayatollahs’ terms simply because his priority was on preserving the process, not getting rid of their nuclear program.
However, that common desire for a deal simply isn’t present between Israel and the Palestinians and no amount of U.S. pressure can manufacture it. Even worse, Kerry’s predisposition to pressure Israel and to regard its positions as the prime obstacle to peace rather than focusing on the real problem in the form of Palestinian nationalism renders an already difficult task virtually impossible.
Let’s specify that the problem here isn’t that Kerry is an enemy of Israel. Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg devoted a column this week to the proposition that Kerry is really Israel’s best friend and to the extent that he discusses the secretary’s motives, he’s not entirely wrong. Kerry believes everything he is doing, whether on appeasing Iran or pushing for a deal that will empower the PA, is in the Jewish state’s best interests. Kerry’s belief that Israel needs peace and would benefit from a two-state solution in which the Palestinians renounce the conflict for all time would is largely correct. Moreover, he thinks the security arrangements he has brought with him are so ingenious that they will in effect disarm Netanyahu’s concerns about giving up all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem to Abbas.
But unfortunately his assumption that Abbas has made such a decision to give up the conflict is not based in fact. The PA continues to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. It also won’t or can’t give up its demand for the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Both show that while Abbas would accept more territory, he won’t pay for it with genuine peace.
Moreover, the emphasis on the Jordan River border crossings in Kerry’s security scheme misses the point about the threat to Israel from a complete withdrawal from the West Bank. Israel must not let anyone else control entry in the territories from the east lest it recreate the pre-1967 scenario in which Arab armies could invade Israel from the high ground of Judea and Samaria. But it is the real possibility that a PA state will simply repeat the fiasco of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza in land directly adjacent to the country’s heartland that is the real security issue.
Israeli settlements do complicate the theoretical peace map but as Gaza showed, Israel will give up land and even places where Jews live if peace is on the line. But Gaza remains under the control of the Islamists of Hamas and despite their economic and political problems, that group is still a mortal threat to Abbas and his Fatah Party. Abbas knows if he signs a peace with Israel that means real peace it will endanger his rule, a point that is significant for a man currently serving the ninth year of the four-year term to which he was elected.
Israel desires peace as much as Kerry. Contrary to his stand, it has already taken many risks for the sake of an accord. But reality is Kerry’s problem here, not a small-minded Israeli government. By that I mean the reality of a Palestinian political culture that regards Israel as an illegitimate intrusion into the region. Until a sea change in that culture occurs, it will remain the real obstacle to Kerry being able to claim another diplomatic triumph or the Nobel Peace Prize he covets. And no amount of pressure on Israel or concessions made by Netanyahu can change that.