Gossip in Jerusalem suggests that many Israelis misunderstand John Kerry’s obsession with the peace process: They believe that the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate is using Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a platform to challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 nomination. That’s not likely. Instead, it’s in comparing Kerry’s dogged efforts to that of his predecessor that Kerry’s real motives become clear. Clinton left a light footprint as secretary of state because she didn’t want anything sticking to her when campaign season rolls around. Kerry on the other hand is doubling down on the peace process because the 70-year-old former senator knows this is his swan song and wants to leave his permanent legacy as a statesman. The problem is that in securing that legacy Kerry may wind up leaving on Israel’s doorstep what the White House believes is the greatest threat to American national security—al Qaeda.
As executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Robert Satloff explains, the Obama administration’s approach to the peace process is very different from how it saw the conflict in the first term. “Today, the peace process is not the top priority,” writes Satloff, and “the president is not personally engaged.” Moreover, as Satloff writes, “if certain reports are true, the White House has even interfered somewhat in [Kerry’s] efforts.”
That would hardly be surprising given that Obama wants to keep Jerusalem as static as possible. In Obama’s first term, the administration linked the peace process to Iran’s nuclear weapons program: the thinking was that progress on Israeli-Palestinian talks would prove Obama’s bona fides to the Arabs, who would then be more likely to join in a coalition encircling Iran. As the White House failed at the peace process—and learned all too publicly that the Arabs already were on board to stop Iran—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict faded into the background.
And this is exactly where Obama wanted it, because the last thing he sought was a fight with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on two fronts. The White House knew Jerusalem wasn’t going to like the interim agreement over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which is why it negotiated behind Israel’s back. From Obama’s perspective, beating up the Israelis over the peace process would only give Netanyahu a second reason to act out, when he wanted the Israelis as quiet as he could manage.
Enter John Kerry. It wasn’t enough to kick a dead horse, he wanted to ride it, too. So he started making threats to get the Israelis’ attention. As a recent New York Sun editorial comparing Kerry to William Fulbright noted, Kerry “thinks nothing of warning Israel that if it doesn’t do what he wants, it will be confronted by the movement for a boycott, divestment, and sanctions.”
In echoing the talking points of some of Netanyahu’s domestic rivals, Kerry was hoping to make Jerusalem jump through hoops. The problem, as Bret Stephens shows in his Wall Street Journalcolumn, is that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement took an enormous hit when Soda Stream pitchwoman Scarlett Johansson resigned her role as “global ambassador” for Oxfam, which wants to boycott goods made in the West Bank, like Soda Stream. As Obama understands, for Democrats the cardinal rule of political messaging is don’t ever wind up on the wrong side of the Hollywood A-list.
Nor has Kerry proven much savvier when it comes to the region. As David Horovitz wrote last week in the Times of Israel, “The indefatigable secretary has consistently displayed a grievous absence of smarts when it comes to Israel, and the wider Middle East.” Kerry, in keeping with the long tradition of peace processing, has a problem with settlements. “There are those who don’t want to stop settling certain parts of the region,” Kerry told David Ignatius, apparently referring not to Iran’s expansionist project from Baghdad to Beirut, but rather to Israeli settlers in the West Bank. And yet the secretary says he understands Israel’s security concerns, which is therefore at the center of negotiations.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas told Thomas Friedman that he’d be willing to accept a NATO presence on the West Bank after an Israeli withdrawal. Netanyahu insists there’s no way that’s ever going to happen—Israelis trust only its military to keep Israel safe. Naturally, Kerry sees an impasse as an opportunity. A possible third-party force, he told Ignatius, “is something for the parties to work out.”
Unfortunately, the most likely candidate for that third-party force right now is al Qaeda.
The Palestinian refugees most likely to settle in the West Bank, as Steven J. Rosen explained in FP.com, “are the legions who are kept wretched in Syria and Lebanon.” “Worst of all,” writes Rosen, “the refugees most likely to come are the ones who have decades of membership and training in the competing terrorist organizations that proliferate in the Palestinian camps in Syria and Lebanon”—several of them with ties to al Qaeda.
The Obama administration has long perceived al Qaeda to be its primary security concern in the Middle East. According to the American intelligence community, an al Qaeda haven in Syria that would dispatch jihadists to wage attacks on the American homeland constitutes the greatest threat to American national security. Accordingly, the Obama administration has refused to arm the Syrian rebels for fear of putting serious American weapons in the hands of American adversaries. Indeed, just last week Kerry himself reportedly spoke of creating an anti-al Qaeda Syrian coalition—presumably composed of the Assad regime and allied forces fighting alongside moderate anti-Assad rebel units.
Israel is also concerned by the growing al Qaeda presence in Syria. Salafist jihadists on the Golan border is one thing, but the same forces within easy range of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport constitute a problem different not in degree but in kind. An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would leave Abbas and PA security forces vulnerable to an al Qaeda onslaught and destabilize Jordan by turning it into a Salafist transit route for anyone who wants to take a shot at Israel’s center.
The deal Kerry is brokering is not for an independent Palestinian state but for a failed state, dead on arrival. Contrary to what Kerry may profess, the status quo is not only sustainable, but for Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan it’s also preferable to al Qaeda on the West Bank.