As John Kerry begins his first overseas trip as secretary of State, foreign observers are beginning to suggest that, maybe, just maybe, the Obama administration will make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority after all.
When Kerry arrived in Britain yesterday, the Telegraph greeted him with an article claiming he is “obsessed” with Mideast peace. The day before, Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, one of the shrewdest analysts of U.S.-Israeli relations, quoted a source claiming that Kerry “is determined to the point of obsession” with an Israeli-Palestinian deal. “He sees it as the holy mission of his life.” For its part, J Street remains buoyed by a White House meeting the Friday before the inauguration in which deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and two other Obama administration officials promised 20 dovish American Jews that Israel-Palestine would be a second-term priority.
I’ve heard similar murmurings about Kerry’s passion for all things Levantine. “He’s obsessed,” declares one close Democratic observer. “Talk to his staffers and they say if you ever want to get his attention, you just say Israel-Palestine and he lights up.” The same observer suggests that unlike Hillary Clinton, who didn’t want to “create any major controversies” because she “had her eye on 2016,” Kerry is less constrained by domestic political concerns.
If only. The problem with the Kerry-as-peacemaker theory is that it overestimates both his influence over President Obama and Obama’s willingness to influence Israelis and Palestinians. Like most presidents, Obama generally signals publicly which political initiatives he’s likely to unveil. During the 2012 campaign, he talked a lot about the budget, immigration, and Iran. And he’s continued talking about them since being reelected, along with gun control. What he hasn’t talked about is Israeli-Palestinian peace. He didn’t mention it at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, during the presidential debates, on election eve, or during his second inaugural address.
Israel did receive one mention in Obama’s recent State of the Union speech, but the Palestinians were ignored. Instead, Obama mentioned Iran once and Syria twice. In 2008 the Democratic platform promised “the personal commitment of the President of the United States … to help secure a lasting settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.” By 2012 that pledge was gone.
It’s no mystery why the president has de-emphasized Israel-Palestine. For one thing, other regional issues have pushed their way onto his agenda. In 2008, Egypt and Syria appeared stable; today they are in varying shades of chaos. Iran is now closer to a nuclear bomb. Moreover, four years of deteriorating conditions on the ground have made it harder to imagine Obama brokering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In 2009 Obama took office only months after the Olmert-Abbas talks that had brought Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization closer to a deal than ever before. To be sure, Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory soon hardened the Israeli government’s position, and the 2009 Gaza War plus Al Jazeera’s leaks about Abbas’s private concessions weakened the Palestinian leader’s hand, thus making it harder for him to compromise. In 2009 it was still easier to imagine that Obama could midwife a resolution than it is today, with Hamas empowered, America weaker regionally, and Israeli settlements even more deeply entrenched.
Some suggest that Yair Lapid’s surprise showing in last month’s elections means the next Israeli government will support a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines, something Netanyahu famously rejected in 2011. But I doubt it. Although more vocal than Netanyahu in his support for peace talks and some sort of Palestinian state, Lapid has gone out of his way to reject the very terms that would be necessary to bring such a state to pass. He launched his campaign in the settlement of Ariel, the very settlement that—because it cuts deep into the West Bank, and thus seriously impairs the functional contiguity of a Palestinian state—proved most contentious in the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas.
Ten days later, Lapid insisted that he could never support a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. “If the Palestinians realize they won’t have a state unless they give up on Jerusalem,” he explained,” they’ll back down from that demand”—a statement that, as my Open Zion colleague Emily Hauser has noted, contradicts virtually everything we know from more than a decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And this month, Lapid told visiting American Jewish officials that by agreeing to a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, Olmert had gone too far.
Smart commentators like J.J. Goldberg have speculated that all this may be for show. They’ve noted that despite Lapid’s center-right rhetoric, his electoral list includes doves like former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Perry of Gatekeepers fame. The problem with this theory is that since his unexpected success in last month’s election, Lapid has locked arms with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, a man who opposes a Palestinian state even more intensely than Lapid supports one.
If Lapid really wanted a deal with the Palestinians, he’d try to join a government coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties that care more about maintaining army exemptions for their yeshiva students than maintaining settlements. Instead, he’s done the opposite, making it unmistakably clear that he cares more about changing Israel’s relations with the ultra-Orthodox than about changing its relationship with the Palestinians. According to Lapid’s deputy, Rabbi Shay Piron, the Lapid-Bennett “partnership is true, deep, and apolitical.” How can that be when Lapid supports a two-state solution and Bennett rejects one? Because Lapid thinks peace talks are important for Israel’s international image but doesn’t think they’ll go anywhere, and as Noam Sheizaf has pointed out, Bennett can accept peace talks precisely because he doesn’t think they’ll go anywhere either.
Some have interpreted the White House’s decision to announce Obama’s Israel trip right after the inauguration as a bid to pressure Netanyahu into forming a more dovish government. Tzipi Livni, who recently joined Netanyahu’s coalition as justice minister with some responsibility for Palestinian negotiations, has even predicted that “in March the world will present us with a peace plan.” But Obama officials adamantly deny that. The trip, one told me, was announced so early only because the Israelis leaked the news when an American advance team was on the ground.
As for trying to influence the composition of Israel’s next government: “We look at it as a domestic Israeli process … We don’t want to be in the middle of it.” And when asked what Obama hopes to achieve by visiting the Jewish state, the official set expectations almost comically low: “I wouldn’t say the goal of the trip is to restart peace negotiations. The purpose of the trip is not to lay down a marker, to create a timeline. It’s not to produce any announcement that in x months the two sides have agreed to come together. People shouldn’t look to any new initiatives to be discussed.” Besides that, expect great things.
So why is Obama going at all? The likeliest explanation is that he wants to delay Israeli military action, and thus buy himself some time for a diplomatic push with Iran, he wants to enlist Israel’s help in a push to end the Syrian civil war, and he wants to end Republican snickering that he hasn’t visited the Jewish state. Kerry’s current trip suggests as much. After initially announcing that he was visiting Israel in advance of Obama, Kerry abruptly canceled on the grounds that he doesn’t want to interfere in coalition negotiations. Instead, he’s embarked on a trip that, according to The Washington Post, “is expected to be dominated by discussion of the situation in Syria.” In addition to trying to meet members of the Syrian opposition, Kerry is visiting Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar—four countries that are crucial not only for any American push on Syria but for an Iran initiative as well.
During his Israel trip, Obama will swing by the West Bank for a lightning-quick meeting with Abbas. When the cameras leave the room, I imagine the Palestinian leader might say something like this:
“Do you see the irony, Mr. President? You and your predecessors demanded that we create a security apparatus that would work with Israel to prevent terrorism from the West Bank. We’ve done it; even the Israeli security chiefs say so. And as a result, we’ve become easy to ignore. Kerry is focused on the war in Syria. Netanyahu is focused on his potential war with Iran. Lapid is focused on his culture war with the ultra-Orthodox. No one is focused on us because we’re not acting like we’re at war.
“But our people have noticed something: When Hamas and Islamic Jihad launch rockets from the Gaza Strip, they get attention. Sure, some of that attention comes in the form of Israeli missile strikes. But when the shooting stops, Israel quietly lifts restrictions on Gazan farmers and fishermen. Hamas ends up strengthened among Palestinians, and across the Arab world. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. President. I’ll never lead my people back to violence; I consider the second intifada a historic disaster. But my hold on my people is slipping, and I won’t be in this job forever. Keep on ignoring us if you want. But one of these days, we’re going to get your attention again in a big way. And by then, I suspect, your attention will be too late.”