Kerry's Test

Combating Cynicism on Israeli-Palestinian Peace

07.18.13 9:00 PM ET

“It’s never going to happen!” “They are just wasting their time.” “These talks are meaningless.”

These are some of the most common responses when people who follow the Israeli-Palestinian issue are asked about the prospects for peace through negotiations. Call it cynicism if you will.

Indeed, neither Israelis nor Palestinians believe in the U.S.-mediated negotiations. I am not just talking about the publics but also the leadership. On one of his many recent trips, Secretary of State John Kerry identified the atmosphere of cynicism that is all too familiar when engaging the Israeli-Palestinian question.

"I know this region well enough to know there is skepticism, in some quarters there is cynicism and there are reasons for it. There have been bitter years of disappointment," Kerry said. He’s right.

Kerry has been shuttling back and forth and back again in an attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. There is a chance he may succeed, even though the talks themselves will certainly fail. Cycnism may have something to do with it. But what Kerry and his colleagues in Washington must realize is that they can significantly influence this cynicism and combat it.

Israel does indeed want to restart talks. Israel needs negotiations to provide cover for its continued colonization of Palestinian territory and create the impression that its presence in the West Bank is temporary and its withdrawal around the corner. The absence of negotiations keeps the light focused on the apartheid reality, instead putting Israel in increasingly hot water as civil society and states continue to reject its subjugation of Palestinians.

The Palestinian leadership does not want talks that will only fail. For the Palestinians, the costs of entering talks are high since the public will reject negotiations that only provide cover for Israeli colonialism. Thus, if Palestinians are to enter talks that are bound to fail, there must be incentives.

Kerry is hoping to provide these incentives by brokering the reported release of a hundred or more Palestinian prisoners. There are also reports of large sums of money being cobbled together by donors to create an economic incentive package, but Palestinians wary of Netanyahu’s economic peace plan will resist any attempts to buy their acceptance of Israeli occupation, if that is all this package amounts to.

Nonetheless, these incentives, combined with pressure on the Palestinian leadership, might bring them back to talk—but then what?

This is the problem in short. The incentives, for all parties, are structured toward having talks for the sake of having talks and not for them to succeed.

The reason for this problem is simple. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe that the United States will exert the necessary pressure on Israel during negotiations to get them to agree to a just peace.

That is the source of cynicism.

This week Jeremy Ben-Ami argued in the New York Times that it’s time to put the skepticism aside and support Kerry’s effort if progress is to be made. But optimism for optimism’s sake that ignores a long history of U.S. bias isn't optimism. It is self-defeating naiveté.

Likewise, cynicism grounded in a realization of that very destructive history of U.S. mediation isn't merely cynicism, it is realism. Why, given the history of U.S. mediation, should anyone be anything but skeptical and cynical of the “peace process?” The burden of proof is on those addicted to unfounded optimism.

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For decades, the U.S. approach has always been to make Israel feel comfortable and secure so that it can make peace. What has happened instead is that Israel has become so comfortable and so secure that it doesn't see a need to make peace.

If Kerry wants to succeed, triumph over cynicism and start talks aimed at more than just talking, he can only do so by shaking things up dramatically and sending the parties, specifically Israel, a message that will leave them uncomfortable and force them to recalculate their policies. Coddling has long since proven a failure.

Of course to actually press Israel, Kerry, Obama and their allies must be prepared to deal with the domestic political backlash. With Egypt and Syria erupting and devolving, pro-Israel voices will be even quicker to assert that this is not the time for any U.S. pressure on Israel.

So then here is the true test of John Kerry’s commitment. It is not something that can be measured in trips taken to the region, miles traveled or meetings held. Rather, it can only be through the willingness to take a political risk at a time when it is most inconvenient to do so.

Short of this, Israeli colonization of the West Bank will continue unabated and the peace can will be kicked down the road for the next White House occupant to deal with.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who knows this all too well, sleeps comfortably because of it.

It’s time he got a rude awakening.