John Kerry says he can get an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement within nine months that would lead to an independent Palestinian state. That’s ambitious to be sure, but Kerry’s optimism raises a key question: With Syria torn by civil war, Egypt in the midst of a meltdown that may lead to another Arab civil war, and the Iranian nuclear program still the region’s major strategic threat, why is the secretary of state pushing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Perhaps with everyone else in the region tied down fighting for vital interests or mere survival, John Kerry imagines he has a unique opportunity for a historical breakthrough: For the price of a few land swaps, he’s going to get the Palestinian Authority to declare that the Arab war against Israel, which PA President Mahmoud Abbas will recognize as the Jewish state, is over once and for all—while everyone else in the region is too busy to notice. Years from now, Iran, Hamas, and Saudi Arabia, among others, will be startled to discover what transpired during those momentous nine months of 2013-14, but it will be too late to do anything about it, for Kerry’s comprehensive, just and lasting peace will have already entered history.
Or maybe Kerry is pushing the peace process simply because he is vain. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis believe a deal is possible at present but Kerry can sidestep that rather inconvenient detail because this is not about the Israelis or the Palestinians. Nor is it about the vital interests of the United States, which is hemorrhaging prestige throughout the Middle East while American allies are begging the White House to lead on the issues that truly matter. If Kerry cannot see what the rest of the region looks like at present, it’s because he likes what he sees in the mirror. As secretary of state why shouldn’t he, too, get his peace process just like so many shuttling diplomats before him? Kerry, according to the Daily Beast, has been preparing for the role for years now, with “meetings, late-night talks, personal visits, and phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and other key leaders in the Middle East.” So what if the curtain’s falling, Kerry’s memorized his lines so the show must go on.
The peace process was always as much performance art as it was policy. Regarding the former, it was intended to prove to our Arab allies that Washington is an honest broker that really didn’t favor Israel at their expense. As for the latter, it was meant to show that we are not an honest broker insofar as we back Israel so heavily that the only chance the Arabs have to secure any concessions from Jerusalem must come via Washington. And it is precisely by making a strength out of what the Arabist crowd considers a liability, the strategic relationship with Israel, that the United States distinguished itself as the regional power broker.
Nonetheless, within the history of the peace process one can discern a lengthy epic about American officials who, misunderstanding its strategic purpose and performative function, were captured by the siren song of the Arab moderates. Generations of Arab officials, intellectuals and activists have insisted that a solution to the Arab-Palestinian conflict is the key to a total peace sweeping over the rest of the Middle East. General James Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command, recently recalled the tune: “I paid a military security price every day as commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen biased in support of Israel,” Mattis told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at the Aspen Security Forum. “And that [constrains] all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly and support a people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”