Mideast Peace

07.18.13

Kerry's Talks: Diplomatic Snafu or Carefully Orchestrated Mess?

Today is proving to be one of those days that Israel/Palestine watchers alternatively thrive on and dread. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to announce a resumption of talks on Friday! Influential Israeli cabinet member Naftali Bennett says his party won’t remain in the government “for so much as a second” if the Prime Minister agrees! Wait, it may all be moot, because the PLO has deferred its decision about restarting talks until Israel agrees to the terms Kerry is suggesting! And all this before lunch on the East Coast.

The idea that had been floated was the following: Kerry would announce talks based on the June 4, 1967 ceasefire lines and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but the sides would be free to voice their objections to that formula, should they choose—that is: Kerry was to announce the parameters, not Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Palestinian President/PLO chair Abbas, both of whom could feel free to immediately reply with “Not us!” (The Oslo Accords dictate that only the PLO may negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, thus, while Abbas is the President of the Palestinian Authority, it is his role as PLO chair that’s relevant here.) As Haaretz put it this morning:

The Palestinians are entitled to say that they will not accept the principle of Israel as a Jewish state, and the Israelis can say they are not prepared to return to the 1967 lines. Despite any opposition voiced, however, the two sides are expected to return to the negotiating table.

Heretofore, though, the Kerry team has been very, very good at preventing any real information emerging from his shuttle diplomacy, with the apparent understanding that running ideas up flagpoles is an excellent way to get them shot down. It may be of note, then, that the person who told the world this news was a senior Israeli official. I’ve been working under the assumption all along that Kerry has been conducting a very delicate game of Chicken, knowing that neither side wanted to be the first to voice any version of “no”—did someone in the Israeli government want to push the PLO to do just that?

I ask the question not because I know that to be the case, but because in my experience it would make a lot of sense (Palestinians have done the same to Israel in the past; it’s a time-honored tactic). It’s not impossible that Kerry really thought he had an agreement in place, and the PLO upset his applecart.

Or, maybe the game of Chicken continues. Maybe Kerry wanted to push Israel’s right flank into being brutally frank about its position on two-state negotiations, while simultaneously reminding everyone involved that there is genuinely no way forward without the 1967 borders as the starting point. By agreeing to that starting point, the Palestinians concede that Israel won the war, and that they will make do with a bifurcated state in 22 percent of their historic homeland—to try to wring anything more out of the Palestinian leadership would not only be morally and ethically indefensible, it would be political suicide for any Palestinian who agreed.

The 1967 borders also happen to be the starting point of every negotiation process ever attempted heretofore—indeed, the brutal truth is that Kerry’s purported idea represents a step back from the Oslo Accords of twenty years ago: No one ever demanded that the PLO (or Egypt, or Jordan, come to that) recognize Israel as “Jewish.” Furthermore, the Accords between Israel and the PLO were predicated on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which presume, a priori, an Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

In the world of Middle East diplomacy, the lack of the word “the” in the above formulation is of some consequence, because it leaves the question open: All of the territories? Or just some of them? (Choosing to not use the word “the” is something of a tradition in the region—cough*Balfour*cough). Yet 242 and 338 cannot be taken as meaning that the borders aren’t the starting point for withdrawal—that’s what starting point means. You start, and then you talk, and then you reach an agreement.

Was this whole mess carefully orchestrated? Was it a diplomatic snafu? Will it ultimately mean anything? I honestly don’t know.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a skeptic of the type called out so eloquently by Jeremy Ben Ami the other day—I would never, ever say “there’s no point to this exercise, stop trying.” I believe that the future of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples depend on a successful negotiation of a two-state resolution.

And yet I don’t really know any more if it’ll ever work, if only because these kinds of days are what pass for diplomacy at this point: A bunch of high-level fussing and squabbling over whether or not people will even sit at the same table, all while my Israeli government maneuvers to consistently make the terms less tenable for our interlocutors by (among other things) building on their land.

I don’t doubt John Kerry’s sincerity, but when it comes to this conflict, I’ve ridden the merry-go-round too many times to be the dewy-eyed peacenik I once was. Today’s mess is a powerful indication of what the Secretary of State is up against. My only hope is that he really, really knows what he’s doing.