The death of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma for eight years, followed shortly after the tenth visit of Secretary of State Kerry to Israel in just the past six months as he continued his search for a conclusive peace to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. Sharon’s survival in a coma for so long was nothing short of a miracle and “miracle” is even more the operative word for Kerry’s Herculean (or, perhaps, Sisyphean) efforts: for nothing short of a miracle can bring about a successful outcome in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The most successful aspect of Kerry’s dreamworks had been the surprising lack of leaks from both sides, but in recent days, the wall of silence has shown some cracks, a sure sign that both are preparing for failure by trying to assure that the blame for failure falls on the opposing team.
The new substantive element that emerged during Kerry’s latest trip to the region was his decision to seek a “framework” for what the final peace deal would entail. The framework would involve the four long-standing unresolved issues: borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and security, as well as a relatively recent issue — and one that is likely to be a deal-breaker (though not necessarily the only one) — and that is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “a Jewish state.”
It’s a demand that the Israelis only recently shoved front and center. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first explicitly tied it to a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians in 2007, but once serious negotiations got underway during Olmert’s last months in office, he dropped it. Unfortunately, it had by then found resonance with right-wing Israelis, and when Netanyahu and his Likud party and their extreme right-wing colleagues took power, they made it a sine qua non for any deal.
President Obama, despite his cerebral oratory, seems to have a penchant for loose lips when dealing with the Middle East: he early on demanded that Israel cease settlement expansion and then back-pedaled immediately when Netanyahu challenged him; he subsequently drew a red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons before escaping through Putin’s offered exit. And in a prepared speech delivered at the State Department in May, 2011, Obama became the first US president, in referring to a future two-state solution, to publicly define Israel “as a Jewish state.”
The result is that the US is on record in accepting Netanyahu’s demand, despite the fact, as Israeli foreign policy analyst Yonatan Touval pointed out recently in a Washington Post op-ed, “recognition of another state’s self-identity has no place in standard diplomatic practice.” Quite apart from relegating the 1,600,000 Palestinians in Israel to second-class citizenship, it is a requirement that Israel never made of Jordan and Egypt when it negotiated peace with them. And Netanyahu continues to up the ante, most recently by calling Palestinian acquiescence to this demand “the real key to peace.”
Roger Cohen, in a column for the NYTimes entitled “My Jewish State,” zeroed in on Netanyahu’s requirement: the Zionism that Cohen identifies with, he wrote, “forged a Jewish homeland in the name of restored Jewish pride in a democratic state of laws, not in the name of finicky insistence on a certain form of recognition, nor in the name of messianic religious Greater Israel nationalism.”
Indeed, the four core issues are difficult enough — especially Israel’s current insistence that Israeli soldiers, not UN or American ones, be stationed in the new Palestinian state along its prospective border with Jordan — without dragging in some exogenous claim that seems more designed to scuttle the talks than to safeguard Israel’s long-term security.
But then Netanyahu knows that a reasonable deal — one that would have the majority support of both Israelis and Palestinians — would necessarily involve the uprooting of at least 100,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which would be politically unpalatable to many members of his coalition government. Indeed one of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers, the day Kerry arrived in Jerusalem, led a media tour through Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley, insisting that they be a part of Israel in any comprehensive deal, an obvious non-starter regardless of how the borders are eventually re-drawn. And Foreign Minister Lieberman went on record, right after Kerry’s departure from Israel this go-round, as refusing to “support any peace deal that will allow the return of even one Palestinian refugee to Israel,” putting the kibosh on the concept of a token return of a minimal number of Palestinian refugees, without which it’s hard to imagine a deal being signed.
Nor was Netanyahu shy during this last Kerry visit in gearing up the blame game: “There’s growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace,” he proclaimed the day Kerry arrived. If peace on his terms in not possible, it’s hardly surprising that Netanyahu wants to win the propaganda game that will surely follow failure.
And so, simultaneously, the NYTimes reported Israeli officials launched a coordinated effort with the international press documenting negative descriptions of Israel in Palestinian textbooks and the Palestinian media. Delivering a presentation to foreign journalists the day Kerry departed, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, charged the Palestinian Authority with “poisoning the Palestinian children with deep hatred of Israel and the Jewish people.”
But if blaming the other side and attacking their behavior is normal diplomatic maneuvering, so, unfortunately, has it become normal for many American congressmen to be more vocal in their support for Israel than in backing Kerry to thread the almost impossible peace needle.
On a visit to Israel that coincided with Kerry’s trip, Senators McCain and Graham agreed with Netanyahu’s reservations about Kerry’s proposed framework for peace. Netanyahu “has serious, serious concerns about the plan” as Kerry presented it, the Washington Post quoted McCain, adding that he and Graham and other supporters of Israel in Congress “will greet Kerry’s program skeptically.”
McCain and Graham and the others who blindly support Israel are locking in continued financial support from the powerful Israel lobby AIPAC, but are they doing Israel any long-term favors?
A failure by the US to oversee a deal, more than 20 years after the Oslo accords that set the peace process in motion, will likely take the US permanently out of the peace process. Without Kerry’s willingness to risk his reputation — which no doubt caught Obama and the rest of the White House foreign policy crew by surprise — it was clear Obama was not going to try again to find a two-state solution after his emissary George Mitchell gave up. A permanent US withdrawal from the peace process would leave Israel as permanent occupier of millions of West Bank Palestinians. And the opening of the settlement floodgates, which have accelerated in the past decade, would continue at a faster pace.
An unending occupation would be no fun for the Palestinians, but the political dilemma it would create for Israel would be infinitely worse: continue as a colonial-style occupying power facing increasing international isolation, or, by granting equal rights to the Palestinians under Israeli control for nearly half a century, see Jews become a minority in a truly democratic Israel.
Graduating from Yale in 1964, Mac Deford joined the Foreign Service the following year, spending three years in Vietnam. He studied Arabic in Beirut, after which he was assigned to the embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He was posted to Washington, New York, and Amman, Jordan before joining Merrill Lynch International in 1978. He spent much of a nearly two-decade career with Merrill in the Far East, retiring in 1997 to Maine. He has written a weekly foreign policy column for the local newspaper since 2001. He has served on a number of non-profit boards, including International College in Beirut, the newly-established graduate School for Policy and International Affairs at the the University of Maine and the Neiman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard.