Give Secretary of State John Kerry credit. His pursuit of Middle East peace may be futile, but it is determined. Weeks after Palestinian decisions to return to the United Nations for an end run around Kerry’s efforts and then a Fatah-Hamas unity pact blew them up, Kerry is back at it. He is scheduled to meet tomorrow in London with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the peace process and the future of the relationship between the United States and the PA. Most observers are treating this meeting as evidence of Kerry’s determination never to give up the search for peace and therefore a praiseworthy act almost by definition.
But even if we are prepared to praise the secretary for never giving up hope for peace, this effort to entice Abbas back to the table to talk with Israel is misguided. While the U.S. has falsely sought to portray the collapse of the talks as being the fault of both sides in the negotiations in order not to alienate the Palestinians, the latest evidence of Kerry’s belief that sweet talking the PA is the only way to go is likely to do more harm than good. After nine months of praise of Abbas as a man of peace coming from the mouths of President Obama and Kerry while they were also trashing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S. is not merely presiding over a standoff; the administration has become one of its main causes. If Kerry isn’t prepared to start pressuring Abbas to make peace and stating that there will be stark consequences for the PA if he fails to do so, the secretary would be better off avoiding the Palestinian leader.
Kerry embarked on his quest for Middle East peace despite advice from nearly every veteran foreign-policy hand that he was wasting his time. The Palestinians were too divided and had demonstrated no sign that they had evolved from the rejectionist stance they adopted when Israel made three separate offers of statehood in 2000, 2001, and 2008. That skepticism was justified when, once again, Abbas refused Kerry’s entreaties to make a symbolic acceptance that Israel was the Jewish state and therefore signaling that the conflict was over. But despite Netanyahu’s willingness to talk about a large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank in exchange for peace, Abbas never budged from his previous positions on territory, Jerusalem, and refugees. He then fled the talks at the first pretext, an announcement of building in a 40-year-old neighborhood of the capital that everyone knows will never change hands even in the event of a peace treaty. In doing so, he walked away from what was, for all intents and purposes, a fourth Israeli offer of peace. He solidified that lack of interest in peace by signing an agreement with the Islamists of Hamas rather than with Israel. The new coalition may provide the Palestinians with unity, but it will be unity in favor of continued conflict, not peace.
At this point the only rational response to these Palestinian decisions ought to be to warn the Palestinians that the unity pact necessitates the end of U.S. aid to the PA. But Kerry has been soft-pedaling the fact that such aid is now illegal under U.S. law and continuing to pretend that Israel, rather than Palestinians, are the main problem. Just as important, even if Obama and Kerry think they must continue to play the even-handed moderator and criticize Israel at every conceivable opportunity, they need to understand that unless they use the considerable leverage the U.S. has over the Palestinians, there is not even a remote chance that Abbas will return to the talks, let alone do what he must to make peace.
If Kerry must meet with Abbas, it is not too late to stop coddling him. The secretary isn’t big on admitting failure, but unless he stops pretending that Abbas is a force for peace when he is anything but, Kerry will remain part of the peace process problem, not its solution.