Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction to the collapse of his Middle East peace initiative was entirely predictable. Eschewing any responsibility for having personally stage-managed this fiasco, he told the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority in a statement that they needed to understand that he had better things to do if they weren’t willing to play ball. As the New York Times reported:
“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward,” said Mr. Kerry, who added it was “reality check time.”
He’s right about that, but if there is anyone involved with this mess that needs a reality check, it’s Kerry.
The secretary ignored the advice of wiser foreign-policy analysts who cautioned that there was no reason to believe there was a chance of forging a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He then plunged head first into the process convinced that he could succeed where all others had failed, all the while warning the Israelis that they would face violence and boycotts if they didn’t do as he asked. But while both Kerry and President Obama continued to praise PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as a peacemaker, it was he who always had his eye on the exit sign from the talks.
Abbas seized on the first pretext he could find to flee the negotiations and now Kerry is left looking foolish. But the problem here is not whether Kerry might be better employed dealing with more urgent U.S. foreign-policy issues like the Russian attack on the Ukraine, the Iran nuclear talks, or even the human-rights catastrophe in Syria than in wasting more time trying to coax the Palestinians back to the table. It’s whether Kerry’s grasp of reality is so tenuous that rather than backing away from a no-win situation, he decides to double down and try to shove a U.S. peace plan down Israel’s throat.
Kerry knows that throughout this process, it has been Israel who has been forced to pay for the talks with concessions. That was true before the talks began when it was pressured into promising to release more than 100 terrorist murderers to bribe Abbas to come back to the table. It was also true during the negotiations when Israel showed itself again to be willing to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank to create an independent Palestinian state while the Palestinians stonewalled.
It’s hard to believe Kerry is truly offended that the Israelis have been unwilling to release the last batch of murderers without some assurance from the Palestinians that they will keep talking after April or that he views this sensible decision as being somehow comparable to Abbas’s walkout and decision to go back to his quixotic effort to gain more recognition for his non-state from the United Nations. Abbas’s refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state—a measure that indicates he is willing to end the conflict rather than merely pause it—as Kerry asked should have alerted the secretary to the fact that the Palestinians simply aren’t interested in an agreement.
This is the moment for a reality check in which Kerry finally grasps that the division between Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza is too great to allow the former to sign a peace treaty that will recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. But instead of pulling back from the process and realizing that all he has done is to take a stable, if unsatisfactory situation and increased the chances that it could blow up, there is now a very real possibility that he will make things even worse by trying to impose an American plan on the parties.
Such a plan would almost certainly involve territorial concessions for the Jewish state that go beyond previous offers including a more drastic (and unworkable) partition of Jerusalem. It may also leave out some of the elements that Kerry included in the peace framework that the Israelis accepted and the Palestinians rejected. These include security guarantees and the symbolic though important provisions that would commit the Palestinians to ending the conflict. But Kerry needs to realize that no matter what a U.S. plan says, Abbas hasn’t the will or the ability to sign a peace agreement.
The secretary has two choices. He can pull back from the talks and instead seek to manage the conflict and give the Palestinians incentives to work on developing better governance, infrastructure, and a free-market economy—things that former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tried and failed to create thanks to lack of support from Abbas and Fatah. Or he can dive even deeper into the abyss and make another explosion of violence even more likely by setting up an even bigger diplomatic failure with a U.S. plan that is certain to crash and burn.
If he doesn’t understand that the first of those two is the only rational alternative for the U.S. at this point, then perhaps it is President Obama who needs to impose a “reality check” on the State Department.