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Secretary of State John Kerry Once Was Everywhere
But Now He's Nowhere
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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.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: John Kerry 
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  1. Don Nash says:

    Kerry has got to know that the global community is laughing at him. The American hegemon is a wounded beast.

  2. The useful thing to come out of the failure, is the realization that the current Israeli government at least, but hopefully not Israelis in general, is firmly wedded to the concept of a Jewish apartheid state. It is always worthwhile to lose one’s illusions and fantasies in favor of reality, no matter how discouraging. This will either force Americans to openly support the modern anachronism of a political nationality based only upon race or religion (and thereby approve racial discrimination once more as in the Jim Crow era), or to gradually disengage from support as a matter of principle, until Israel comes to its senses, a process essential for its long-term viability.

  3. I think John Kerry did a valuable service regarding the domestic discussion of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. I consider what he did a success in that regard. The recent failure laid bare inconvenient truths about Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and their lack of desire for peace. What are the Martin Indyks of the world going to do now? Are they going to continue supporting unconditional welfare to a self destructing Israel?

    I think whatever dysfunction is present is the result of the immaturity of the political class. Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Ukraine were and are invented crises for domestic consumption. It doesn’t matter to them if these crises are solved or not. It provides entertainment, excitement, and jobs for the political class. Failure for them is as exciting as success. The armaments industry makes money, the experts get to make names for themselves and shape public opinion. Successful experts attract funding to help support their career and are like Teflon in their ability to evade responsibility. It is like when the Soviet Union was falling to pieces and all these experts were engaging in threat inflation over the Soviet Union. They are still doing it today. They would invent arguments about the dire threat of emperor penguins living on Antarctica if there was money in it. I don’t see how American foreign policy can get better until these people who are gaming the system on foreign policy are discredited.

  4. Kiza says:

    There is only one word for it: decline.

  5. Mark Green says: • Website

    This article focuses far too much on Kerry’s predictable failure while it chides–in nearly equal measure–the ‘recalcitrance’ of both parties (Israelis and Palestinians) in this latest still-born spectacle. Haven’t we seen this movie before?

    Unfortunately, there’s nothing equal about any of the players in this tragic farce. To pretend otherwise is a Zionist canard.

    The underlying conditions that make a diplomatic solution between the ‘two parties’ so unlikely are (1) the morally unacceptable demands that accompany racial Zionism in the final stages of its conquest of Palestine, and (2) the unrivaled power that Zionists enjoy in Washington and the West. Can’t we also please stop ignoring the perverse imbalance that exists between Jews and Palestinians as they ‘negotiate’ a so-called peace agreement? Negotiations cannot occur under such a deplorable imbalance of power. Is it any wonder why negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are always done in absolute privacy? In this situation, a ‘negotiated’ peace agreement a laughable charade.

    Face facts: The ‘peace process’ era is ending. The Jewish State’s main domestic objective now is the riddance of non-Jews within it’s expanding borders. As the late Rabbi Meir Kahane famously noted: “They (the Arabs) Must Go”. Multiculturalism ultimately cannot work in the Jewish State. It was never supposed to. That brand of kool-aid is marketed in America, not Israel. Very few Jews have wanted to face Kahane’s blunt prescription (and its implications) at the time he made that notorious call, but ‘transfer’ may indeed be Israel’s end game. That day fast approaches.

    To complicate matters, Israel is now locked in expansion mode. This bizarre situation is both perplexing and amazing. After all, what Zionist way-back-when would ever have anticipated the exhausting tenacity shown by the local primitives after all their military defeats? How dare they! After all, the native Arabs have been conquered. They lost. So how much longer will this pathetic ‘peace process’ carnival clunk along? Peace negotiations are coming to a close. Yet the Palestinians still refuse to crawl away. That’s amazing. Israel’s key problem now is visibility: the whole world is watching. So how exactly can they get rid of these people? It’s a political conundrum as well as a public relations nightmare.

    After all, clean and efficient warfare requires privacy. The dirty work of battle is best done in the dark. Problem is, that condition no longer exists. The camera is everywhere. For Israel, this presents problems. Too many civilians. What’s an ambitious ethno-state to do? Keep the native non-Jews dangling while time works its magic? Apparently.

    In the meantime, all Washington can do is beg, cajole, and send Israel uninterrupted boatloads of cash and weaponry. It’s been that way since LBJ. How? Why? Israel has gradually become the world’s greatest superpower. America is merely its patron and bouncer. It is Tel Aviv that dictates to Washington, not the reverse. Official Washington is now comfortably in Israel’s hands. Sad but true. Haven’t you heard?

    America therefore can do nothing besides watch and wait for Israel to makes its next move. You haven’t noticed? US ‘leaders’ meanwhile scold half-dead Palestine for not accepting ‘peace’ on Israel’s uncompromising terms. As the chicanery unfolds, all we rank-and-file Americans are allowed to do is watch passively. Please: no talking! And do keep in mind that even a whiff of antisemitism will not be tolerated. Stop the hate! Incredibly, Americans are merely bit players in this post-Holocaust, Jewish melodrama.

    So here’s the next episode: Palestinians will continue to wither, US taxpayers will pay all production costs, and Israel will continue to construct ‘settlements’ in what was supposed to be an independent Palestinian State.

    Stay tuned!

  6. KA says: • Website

    It seems after all Guardian -UK was right and correct to the core when it published Palestine Papers. Guardian brought the truth to the wider reaches of the public understanding of the impotent weakness of Palestine and the asymmetrical nature of the negotiations . It seems it is a negotiation between the hostage and the hostage taker ,one is defenseless and other party is armed to the teeth and the negotiation is taking place in a castle out in a desert with no one outside monitoring or making sure the safety of the hostage . It seems it is the safety that is being negotiated away and US is readying itself for the arrival of the Palestine corpse.

  7. Joe says:

    There seems to be a constant problem in DC these days in that they believe the lies they tell. One constantly hears Kerry say the most ridiculous things. The first reaction is trying to choose between ‘does he really believe that?’ and ‘how can he say that with a straight face?’.

    Turns out he really does believe his own lies.

    Which is quite scary when it comes to the lies he’s constantly telling about Ukraine and the possibilities that the crisis the State Dept has created there might go badly out of control. Someone who’s lost contact with reality on the scale pointed out in this article is generally regarded as a ‘madman’. Which means in Ukraine we’ve got a madman playing with the nuclear matches.

    “Failure has costs…if you’re basing your approach on a wing and a prayer, you’re headed for trouble.” If that’s the epitaph for Kerry in Ukraine as well, the whole world could be in trouble.

  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    John Kerry just wants to be President, that’s all.

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