Veteran Middle East peace processors are arguing that naysayers are in bad odor this week, now that John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, has seemingly defied the skeptics.
Kerry has actually achieved what so many American officials have achieved before — which is to say, getting the Israelis and Palestinians to agree, provisionally, to sit down and yell at each other before retreating to their respective corners, thus providing the next secretary of state a chance to score yet another “Groundhog Day” Middle East breakthrough.
I’m not discounting Kerry’s achievement, by the way (though I wish he’d spend more time focused on the Syrian civil war and the tragic, slow-motion collapse of Egypt). It isn’t easy to bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together to talk about anything, and Kerry’s indefatigability and sincerity are impressive.
His reported choice for Middle East peace envoy, Martin Indyk, is also impressive. Indyk (a friend, though a friend who is often peeved at me for my opinions) is a former ambassador to Israel and feels the need for such a two-state solution in his bones. Although he is well versed on this issue, he was sidelined, as were other former Middle East peace negotiators, during the reign of Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton (who famously sidelined the entire issue of Middle East peacemaking). It’s a welcome sign that he might be back.
But as I’ve written before, I think Kerry is on a fool’s errand, and I think the collapse of these talks, which is almost inevitable, could have dangerous consequences. Remember what followed the collapse of the Camp David peace process in 2000: years of violence, including horrific bus-bombing campaigns.
To believe in this process, as Kerry envisions it, you have to blind yourself to at least two realities.
The first is that Hamas exists and is in control of the Gaza Strip, whether we like it or not. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which will be bargaining with Israel, will represent at best half of Palestine. How do you negotiate a state into existence that is divided between two warring factions? It isn’t even clear if the Palestinian Authority is fully in control of those parts of the West Bank that Israel deigns to let it control. (I will save for another time the deeper discussion of whether the maximum an Israeli government could offer the Palestinians represents the minimum the Palestinians could plausibly accept.)
You also have to blind yourself to the reality that the Jewish settlement movement on the West Bank is now the most powerful political force in Israel. This is a movement whose leaders and Knesset representatives and cabinet ministers will subvert any peace process that would lead to the dismantling of even a single settlement, including any of the dozens of well-populated ones far beyond Israel’s West Bank security barrier.
Oh, and by the way, to believe in this process you have to believe that the parties are ready to divide Jerusalem.
Instead of pursuing direct talks between the two sides, Kerry would be better off first negotiating with them separately.
With the Israelis, Kerry (and his boss) should talk about the demographic, security and moral challenges of governing a population that doesn’t want to be governed by Israel. He would be pushing on a bit of an open door — the increasingly centrist Netanyahu (who is becoming more and more alienated from his robustly right-wing Likud party), seems to understand now that continued occupation (an occupation that exists at this point mainly to support the settlers) is undermining Israel’s international legitimacy and its future as a Jewish-majority democracy.
Kerry is understood in Israel as a true friend; his lobbying could be effective. If the Israelis would take small, unilateral steps on settlements, they could change the Palestinian calculus and improve Israel’s reputation (which has become a genuine national-security concern).
On the other side, Kerry might want to try a bit more aggressively to help the Palestinian Authority become a viable governing body with a functioning economy and a bureaucracy that is reasonably free of corruption. Strengthening the Palestinian Authority (and working to weaken Hamas) while cajoling the Israelis to wean themselves from their addiction to settlements are two steps Kerry could take to advance negotiations.
It’s true that Kerry has gotten the Israelis to agree to release some Palestinian prisoners. And he may convince the Palestinians to cease, for a while, their campaign to delegitimize Israel in the international arena. But these developments, by themselves, won’t advance the larger cause.
I’d like to be proved wrong, but given my doubts about the viability of a two-state solution — even a solution negotiated by the most visionary and large-hearted of Palestinian and Israeli leaders — I’m not imagining great success for Kerry in the coming months.