Open Zion

07.30.13

The Case For A Less-Guarded Optimism

We waited nearly an hour, and then it lasted for all of 16 minutes. John Kerry’s press conference with negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat was very like his shuttle diplomacy—a lot of waiting, a false beginning, and finally, one step forward, with very little information attached.

Here’s what we know: Formal negotiations will begin in the next two weeks, either in Israel or in the Palestinian territories; the parties have agreed that “all final status issues, core issues and other issues” are on the table, with the goal of ending claims against each other; the Arab League has reaffirmed its Peace Initiative, which offers an end to regional conflict in exchange for a two-state peace; the only person authorized to make statements on the process is the Secretary of State; the deadline is nine months from now.

Those last two points should make folks sit up a little straighter. One of the biggest mistakes made in the past has been to establish long, essentially open-ended timelines that allowed spoilers to do their work (whether via political maneuvering, or violence—suicide bombings, assassination, intifada, military incursions, etc), while also allowing Israel to deepen the occupation even as it sat at a go-nowhere negotiating table. One of the other biggest mistakes has been to let anyone and everyone run their mouths about it.

Violence can be carried out at any given time, but those who would maneuver and undermine need information (verifiable or wild rumor, it matters not) to do their work. They need to read tea-leaves, divine the intentions of all and sundry, and work their publics into a froth based on those efforts. By saying that the parties have agreed that he and he alone may be trusted, Kerry has nipped that in the bud. Solutions cannot be floated, threats cannot be implied, ideas cannot be run up flagpoles—and when all of that happens anyway (as all of it inevitably will), each side can point to Kerry and say: “Not us! He’s the one running the Comms office.”

So what Kerry has done is create both less space, and more space. Less space for jerking the process around for domestic consumption, more space for creativity and (dare I say it?) bold decision making. Less space in which terrible things can happen that might drain the peoples’ willingness to accept the process and its outcome, more space for the political cover anyone negotiating an end to decades of violence needs.

Then there’s the little fact that “all final status issues, core issues, and other issues” are on the table. The peace process has a history of front-loading Israel’s immediate needs while back-loading Palestinians’ long-term needs, and what winds up happening is that Israel’s security demands get met (more or less), while Palestinians are allowed to languish. By bringing everything up, right now, Kerry does an end run around that tradition, while also deftly avoiding any specifics. What about (final status issue) Jerusalem? “It’s on the table.” Has Netanyahu (core issue) agreed to ’67 borders? “On the table.” Has Abbas (other issue) agreed to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state? “Have you seen our table?”

I’ve lately taken to describing my approach to Kerry’s efforts as one of guarded pessimism. I’ve been on this merry-go-round since 1993, and there’s nothing like two decades of resounding failure to make a person lose her hope—but like Kerry himself, I believe that outright skepticism is a luxury that we can’t afford.

The Secretary of State clearly knows what he’s up against, and as a veteran of the Senate, it seems he also has some skill negotiating delicate matters among folks who loathe each other. Finally, and I know this is a small thing but it speaks volumes to me: Kerry’s actually been to Gaza. Unlike the vast majority of American leaders who bloviate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, John Kerry made the politically unpopular choice to travel across the globe the wake of Israel’s 2008/2009 Gaza War to witness what the conflict has meant, not only for Israelis, but for Palestinians, too.

John Kerry means business, and though their comments were brief, it seems that Livni and Erekat also mean business. Mahmoud Abbas has supported a two-state solution since 1977; Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to make it sound like maybe he’s not as opposed as he used to be. President Obama went out of his way this morning to make it clear that he, too, means business.

Everyone involved has their reasons for being involved, and some of those reasons are petty. The ways in which the whole thing could fall apart are myriad. History gives us very little reason to hope.

But in the wake of this morning’s press conference, my pessimism is less guarded than it was. Let’s see what you can do, Mr. Secretary. Next April would be a lovely time to re-write the future.