Our peripatetic secretary of state has been less so these last few weeks since the collapse of his Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
Lying low. And no wonder. It’s hard to squeeze any good news out of the failure: we’ve learned useful information about the Israeli and Palestinian positions we didn’t know before the Kerry initiative? On the contrary, both sides stuck to their publicly expressed views. Well, then at least we’ve laid the groundwork for the next round of talks en route to the two-state solution? Hardly: both sides came away more recalcitrant than ever, with each taking steps to make another round impossible so long as either Israeli’s Prime Minister Netanyahu or Palestinian President Abbas remain in charge.
Then why did Kerry do it?
Perhaps our close ties to Israel led him to believe that Netanyahu would accept our advice on some issues while on other, more sensitive ones, our enormous aid could be used as a prod. Unlikely: overwhelming Congressional support for Israel has long made the threat of withholding any part of our annual largesse to the Jewish state a hollow one; and the fragility of Netanyahu’s coalition government, quite apart from the personal coolness of his relations with Obama, meant the expectation of any real give on key hardline Israeli positions was unrealistic.
But while my oft-expressed view that Kerry had embarked on a fool’s errand, was pretty much mainstream, I still had a lingering doubt. Surely, he wouldn’t have gone in search of this out-of-reach grail unless he had done his homework, surveyed the ground, gotten some assurances — a wink from Netanyahu, a nod from Abbas — that their private positions were more moderate than their public ones. Clearly not. It was just naiveté and hubris, an unfortunate mixture, that despite his foreign policy exposure, makes one happy that at least Kerry’s not president.
A recent article in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper, paints Kerry as more naive than even the outcome showed. The reporter, Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s most influential journalists, reported on discussions he had with “senior US administration officials who were involved in Kerry’s initiative.” In reviewing the Palestinian demand for a construction freeze by Israel in the West Bank, the US officials reportedly told Barnea, “We didn’t realize Netanyahu was using the declarations of construction plans in the settlements to ensure the survival of his government. We didn’t realize that the continuation of the construction was enabling ministers in his cabinet to sabotage the success of the negotiations.”
Kerry didn’t know continued Israeli settlement expansion could undermine the talks? But there was more: “We had a rude awakening. Neither of the two [Netanyahu and Abbas] had a sense of urgency. Only Kerry was passionate about the agreement and that was not enough.” And that wasn’t obvious in advance as Kerry arm-twisted the two reluctant participants to the table?
“Twenty years after Oslo, facts and rules of the game have been created that have become deeply entrenched. This reality is very difficult for the Palestinians and very comfortable for Israel.”
Yes, says the incredulous reporter, but didn’t you know this in advance?
“We knew, but we set our disbelief aside willingly.”
Delving into details of the negotiations, the Americans are quoted, “Israel presented its security needs in the West Bank: the demand was for total control on the ground…Israel would not be willing to agree to a timetable — its control would last forever.” But still, Abbas went further than the Palestinians had previously: “He agreed to a demilitarized state; he agreed to draw the border in such a way that 80 percent of the settlers would live in Israeli territory; he agreed for Israel to continue to hold onto security areas [in the Jordan Valley] for five years, and then it would be replaced by the United States…He also agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and agreed for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel to be dependent on the will of the Israeli government.”
In return for these concessions to the Israelis, the Americans told the journalist that Abbas required the following: that the decision on future borders be the first issue negotiated and agreed on; that an end date be set for Israeli security forces to withdraw from the new Palestinian state; and that East Jerusalem be accepted as the capital of the new state. “The Israelis did not accept any of these three demands.”
In “the final chapter,” as the article termed it, the American initiative bordered “on the pathetic,” as Kerry tried to persuade the two sides to at least continue the talks, even though it was clear they were going nowhere.
What comes through from the Israeli reporter’s discussion with Americans directly involved in the talks is how little real thought had proceeded Kerry’s initiative. It’s not just that Kerry hadn’t done his homework — you get the impression that he hadn’t believed it was necessary.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is reportedly planning to push a new law through Israel’s parliament defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which will make any deal with the Palestinians down the road even more difficult. And once the talks were dead, Abbas patched things up with Hamas which both Israel and the US consider a terrorist organization. The Palestinians are also considering taking their case before the International Criminal Court, which would further slam the door on future negotiations.
As a direct result of the failed Kerry initiative, peace is more elusive than ever. It was a long shot in any case as the past nine months have made abundantly clear, so arguably no practical damage has been done.
But at a time when the US is frequently portrayed as being on the downslope of the international power curve, with the Middle East as a prime example of the decline in our influence, the whimpering end to Kerry’s ill-conceived action becomes Exhibit A. Aaron David Miller, a former American diplomat who spent several decades involved in the Palestinian issue, summed up the problem nicely in a recent article entitled, “The Lies We Tell Ourselves,” one of which is the theory that “trying and failing is better than not trying at all.”
Not so, Miller says convincingly. “Failure has costs…if you’re basing your approach on a wing and a prayer, you’re headed for trouble.” Miller cites the examples of the Iraq war, the 2000 Camp David peace summit and the Geneva talks on Syria: “Even the Camp David and Geneva talks might have been OK if we had some sort of Plan B. But we didn’t, and that left the kind of vacuum that leads folks to believe (correctly) that we don’t know what we’re doing.”
Add Kerry’s Palestinian-Israeli talks to the top of that list.
Graduating from Yale in 1964, 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.