U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy may finally be taking flight. After six trips to the Mideast during his brief tenure, Kerry appears on the verge of announcing a resumption of direct peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
A deal to start dealing with the thorny issues isn’t done yet, although last week Kerry announced from Amman, Jordan, an agreement that “establishes a basis” for formal negotiations. Even getting that far is an achievement that should be commended, not criticized. Not giving in to the inertia and cynicism over this seemingly intractable international problem is what America’s top envoy should do.
Much of the criticism directed Kerry’s way has been that regional upheaval, particularly in Egypt and Syria, should take precedence over the peace process. These complaints are based on false premises.
For one, any envoy, under any administration, needs to deal with concurrent crises. Second, U.S. influence has limits, even in Egypt, recipient of up to $1.55 billion in annual U.S. aid.
In fact, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was rebuffed by both sides in his recent post-coup Cairo trip. And despite agreeing to arm some Syrian rebels — a move short of direct military intervention — the United States is mostly sidelined in Syria, especially given the immoral enabling of the homicidal Assad regime by Russia and China. Most important, taking risks on peace talks, however quixotic, can pay diplomatic dividends in other countries’ conflicts.
“The Palestinian-Israeli issue has always proved to have resonance in the Arab Street,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. Now a Princeton professor, Kurtzer added that, “I think what Secretary Kerry is saying to himself is not that ‘If I solve the Israel-Palestine issue, all the other issues will be resolved. But I will make space for other issues out there — credibility, space, time and political support for what we do elsewhere, as well as hopefully making progress on the conflict itself.’ ”
Making progress will be extremely difficult. First, both sides have to formally agree on the diplomatic “terms of reference” that would frame the talks. Next, expect months of negotiations over the vexing issues long separating the sides. And even in the unlikely event of an accord, it would need to be sold to — and most likely voted upon — by the Israeli and Palestinian people.
This last step may be the steepest. Palestine is in need of its own peace process, given the split between Gaza, ruled by the more militant Hamas — which Israel, the United States and European Union rightly consider a terrorist organization — and the West Bank, ruled by the more moderate Fatah. By nearly every measure, the Palestinians are in a weakened position regarding the transcendent issues of borders, Jerusalem, settlements and refugees.
Israel may be in a stronger negotiating position on these and other issues, but it also has internal divisions. Many in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition may strenuously oppose a peace deal. And, short of a two-state solution, Israel faces a long-term demographic dilemma in remaining a fundamentally Jewish and democratic state.
It’s also clear that the country is increasingly internationally isolated, even in Europe, where last week the European Union announced new guidelines banning financing and cooperation with Israeli institutions in territories seized after the 1967 war. (The E.U., however, did label the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization on Monday, a move Israel welcomes.)
To be sure, pushing peace talks can be perilous, too. Failure may push Palestinians into a late-blooming Arab Spring movement or even into another intefadeh.
“There’s always the possibility of a breakthrough,” said Michael N. Barnett, professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University. “That would be a miracle. But negotiations have a cost. And I do hope that the Obama administration has a backup plan, because if this doesn’t work it is going to need one.”
‘Miracle’ or mirage, Mideast peace is worth the risk. Kerry may indeed need a backup plan. But he should get credit for his dogged diplomacy to date.