Kerry’s effort thwarted by the Middle East


© 2014, Bloomberg News

Well, God bless John Kerry for trying.

It appears as if the latest attempt by the United States to make the Palestinians and Israelis embrace reason is failing. It is true American negotiators have misstepped and miscalculated at different moments in the peace negotiations led by the secretary of state. There will be plenty of time for autopsies. But two points are worth remembering right now.

One, the missteps and miscalculations (and myopia) of the Israelis and Palestinians are what matter most. Two, the Obama administration, and specifically its secretary of state, deserve credit for maintaining the belief — in a very American, very solutionist sort of way — that the application of logic and good sense and creative thinking could bring about, over time, a two-state solution to the 100-year Arab-Jewish war.

A third, additional, point: Maybe it’s not actually over. Maybe Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, lately praised by Obama as the most moderate Palestinian leader we may ever see, will come to realize that his decision to seek international recognition of an imaginary state of Palestine is not the cleverest way to bring about the creation of an actual Palestinian state, assuming a Palestinian state in part of his people’s homeland is what he actually wants. Maybe Abbas will realize that recognizing, in some form or another, that the Jewish people have a legitimate claim to a state on at least a portion of their ancestral homeland could motivate the vast Israeli political center to embrace the sort of concessions Abbas says he wants Israel to make.

Maybe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will come to see that his country’s addiction to West Bank settlements, particularly those that loom over Palestinian cities, is not only ruinous to Israel’s international reputation, but also is leading Israel toward a de facto binational future, ending the dream of a Jewish-majority haven in a world that has abused Jews for 2,000 years.

Meaningful gestures from Abbas and Netanyahu — not Nelson Mandela-sized gestures, that would be too much to ask for, but some tentative display of large-heartedness — would help overcome the mutual suspicion that seems to be sinking this latest attempt at peacemaking. Kerry is a talented man, but he cannot change the nature of these two leaders. Netanyahu is, as Obama has noted, an intelligent and gifted political leader.

But Netanyahu does not seem capable of understanding how moderate Palestinians might view his government’s continued efforts to colonize the West Bank, the core of a future Palestinian homeland. Abbas, too, emerges from this process looking smaller than usual.

It’s been my hope for a very long time that a Palestinian leader would view David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder, as a role model. Ben-Gurion built the apparatus and economy of a state before the state existed, and he said yes to the grant of a state that seemed neither viable nor defensible — but he made something of it anyway.

Abbas (unlike the deposed prime minister of Palestine, Salam Fayyad) wants the international community to hand him a perfect, ready-made Palestine. Hence his decision to seek membership in 15 international conventions, the proximate cause of the coming collapse of negotiations. Abbas is under the illusion that membership in various international conventions means he rules a country. But the moral support of Bolivia and Thailand and Norway and Malawi will not bring about the creation of a state. Only Israel can conjure a Palestinian state into existence.

Kerry is arguing it is “completely premature” to issue a death certificate for the peace process, but no breakthroughs seem remotely imminent. This version of the peace process started last year with a grand promise by the Obama administration to conclude a peace deal within months. When that seemed impossible to achieve, the administration downshifted, trying to convince both parties simply to sign onto a framework agreement, one that would define the issues to be negotiated later. That didn’t work either.

Last week, we saw the administration float the idea of releasing Jonathan Pollard, the ex-U.S. Navy intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel, in exchange for some Israeli movement on the peace process. As I wrote earlier, this was both a dubious idea generally and extremely unlikely to bring about advances in negotiations. If anything, it was a sign of desperation. As Andrew Exum and others have noted, why would the mediator in a dispute make concessions to one of the parties seeking mediation? It’s up to the parties to make concessions to each other. Obama has argued that the United States can’t want a peaceful compromise between Israelis and Palestinians more than the parties want it themselves. The Pollard balloon (now punctured, presumably) suggests Kerry wants a negotiated settlement just a bit too much.

Then again, when this latest iteration of the peace process began, I, like many others, had some fun at Kerry’s expense (noting a presumed desire on his part to win the Nobel Peace Prize), but now I regret that. Yes, there were plenty of missteps along the way, but, really, how can we blame a man for seeking peace?

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs.

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