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.”
No doubt Gen. Mattis really did hear from his Arab interlocutors about the importance of the Palestinian issue. Perhaps he even heard it from Jordan’s King Abdullah II who has warned repeatedly over the years, like his father Hussein before him, that the window for peace is closing and we’d better get a deal done now before the Middle East goes up in flames. Astonishingly, in spite of the many decades worth of warnings from the Hashemite monarchs, the Middle East is still here.
As it turns out, what’s usually most important is what Arab moderates don’t typically tell American officials and journalists about the Palestinian issue. For instance, were Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, Hamas would rout the PA in a matter of months and leave King Abdullah with an Islamist group on his Western border in the middle of a three-year-long upheaval in the region that has left a trail of Arab rulers—moderate Arab rulers—in its wake. What keeps Abdullah up at night right now is the recurring nightmare of Kerry sinking his million-to-one shot and getting a deal for a failed Palestinian state.
Of course the Arab moderates marching through Mattis’s office berated the United States over the Palestinians, but what about the information that truly affects U.S. security? Here’s an admonition that might have been useful: “Sure, General, the conflict with Israel is a problem, but what’s really going to bring the house down on everyone’s head, including America’s, is if this 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shiite war goes hot again, especially if it hits the geographical center of the region, say, in Syria.” With Obama having turned his back on the Middle East, it would be salutary if, in lieu of a peace process, American officials used the time-out to re-evaluate what they have been told about the region and in turn relay to American audiences who, since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have the common good sense to recognize the key issue is not that Americans won’t force Israelis to make peace with Arabs, but that the Arabs can’t make peace with themselves.
The peace process has entered its mannerist phase—it is nothing but a series of empty elegant formalisms. Does Martin Indyk, Kerry’s newly named Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, really need to add a sequel to his memoirs of the peace process, Innocent Abroad—Again? This is among the most cynical initiatives in the annals of American diplomacy, for Kerry sought a peace process against the wishes of the White House he serves. As the AP reported last month, “Some U.S. officials have scoffed at the notion that Kerry is getting anywhere [on Mideast peace], though they allow that the White House has given him until roughly September to produce a resumption of negotiations.” In other words, the administration gave Kerry a deadline, and if he couldn’t get it done by then he would have to drop his peace process and move on to something else.
Under normal circumstances, if the president of the United States says you have a few months to solve the region’s most famously thorny issue, you’d walk away from the meeting understanding that the president wants you to drop it. The last thing Obama wants is a reprise of the peace process to remind the world that this was one of his first-term failures, and that by repeatedly beating up on Israel he alienated many supporters. Under normal circumstances, the secretary of state would find another venue in which to exercise his diplomatic energies, but not if it’s John Kerry, for the peace process is his destiny.
To get the Palestinian Authority to the table, Kerry needed to sweeten the pot and made Israel release 104 prisoners responsible “for the deaths of 55 civilians, 15 soldiers, one female tourist and dozens of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.” As Elliott Abrams writes: “My question is why the United States asks a friend to do what we would not do—release terrorists…Israel has at times undertaken huge prisoner releases, for example letting a thousand men out to get back the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. But that was their own sovereign decision, taken after long national debate. Here, we are pressing them to release prisoners.”
While watching Kerry enjoy his moment in the sun, it’s perhaps useful remembering some of the victims of those crimes, like Adi Moses, whose mother and brother were killed in 1987 when one of the newly liberated prisoners threw a firebomb at the family’s car. Earlier this week, she wrote an article pleading with Israeli authorities, and their American allies, to keep her tormenter in jail.
“I was 8 years old when this happened. While my father was rolling me in the sand to extinguish my burning body, I looked in the direction of our car and watched as my mother burned in front of my eyes….With your decision to release the murderer you spit on the graves of my mother and my brother Tal. You erase this story from the pages of the History of the State of Israel. And in return for what?”