Secretary of State John Kerry met with a group of key Jewish leaders this past week, and was accompanied by the administration's all-star team on "peace process" matters: Martin Indyk, Susan Rice, and Ben Rhodes.
Kerry apparently read a prepared speech, which is odd in a setting like this at the White House. He told the heads of Jewish organizations that peace was a "strategic imperative" and that time was running out. The elders among the leaders will have been told exactly the same thing by Secretaries Rogers, Kissinger, Vance, Baker, Christopher, Albright, Powell, Rice, and Clinton.
Few if any of them will have been persuaded by Kerry's arguments. According to the Jerusalem Post, Kerry "argued that the regional strategic environment has become favorable for a peace agreement because opponents of peace have weakened over the past two years." He may believe this, but none of them do. Mubarak is gone and Egypt is unstable; Jordan has seen more demonstrations against the King in the last two years than in the ten before that, and now houses about 600,000 Syrian refugees; Syria is at war and the jihadi presence on Israel's border is growing. Moreover, American passivity in the face of successful and growing Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Syria, while Iran moves closer and closer to a nuclear weapon, will not seem to most Jewish leaders to help create a "favorable regional strategic environment."
Kerry also told them Israeli security issues are central to the negotiations, but his explanation of how Israeli security would be handled cannot have won many fans. According to the Times of Israel, Kerry said "one of the lynchpins [sic] of the current peace process is the separation of Israel’s security assurances from the general negotiations, assurances he said would be guaranteed in a separate agreement with the US. The security track is being worked out under the auspices of retired Marine Corps general John Allen, who is currently Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s special adviser for the Middle East Peace."
This suggests that Israel is negotiating security matters with the United States rather than with the PLO, which is itself unworkable--because the PLO, not the United States, has to agree and sign the deal. For example, in the past Israel has demanded control of the airspace over a Palestinian state (to guarantee against air attacks), no international airport in such a state, and an IDF troop presence on the Jordan River. The Palestinians have said no to all this in the past, so how is peace advanced by arguing over these matters with General Allen?
How does a separate American "guarantee" help? If the Palestinians agree to such terms, Israel can enforce them (and prefers to do so itself, certainly without foreign troops present); if the Palestinians do not agree, the United States cannot enforce them. So what, exactly, will the United States guarantee? And will such a guarantee be trusted, given that it will bind only Mr. Obama, who by next year (when the Kerry negotiations have used up their proposed nine months) will have less than three years left in office? In 2004, President Bush gave Prime Minister Sharon certain guarantees about American policy, but the Obama administration treated those as a kind of private letter having no binding policy impact. Is Kerry going to propose a security treaty, such as we have with Japan, and send it to the Senate for ratification? Do the Israelis want one? Is it a good idea--or a better idea not to substitute the United States for a PLO that may be unwilling to give the guarantees and promises that real peace requires?
Mr. Kerry sounded optimistic, all accounts suggest, and this must have been plain mysterious to his listeners. Their own contacts in the Middle East are good enough for them to know that this enthusiasm and optimism is shared nowhere among Palestinian or Israeli pundits or political elites. Mr. Kerry was right to speak to Jewish leaders (and apparently will soon speak to leaders of Arab-American groups), but his prepared statement won him no ground. It's old wine in old bottles. And after a while, old wine grows sour.