Shuttle Diplomacy

John Kerry's Mission Impossible?

Hussein Ibish on the obstacles faced by John Kerry, and some ways to make progress anyway.

Secretary of State John Kerry is heading back to the Middle East this weekend for yet another round of meetings. Following on the heels of President Barack Obama's trip to the region, Kerry has embarked on a campaign of intensive shuttle diplomacy. But the State Department is at pains to stress that he is not yet presenting any new American peace initiative.

Kerry, who has embraced this issue with a heartening degree of enthusiasm, will undoubtedly try to elicit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas what inducements would get them to consider a return to the negotiating table.

Apart from the fact that he's walking into a situation on the ground that is increasingly volatile—with two Palestinian teenagers recently shot and killed in violent clashes with Israeli occupation forces—there are two structural obstacles facing Kerry in talking about talks with both leaders.

First, neither has a direct political incentive to take risks regarding peace. Both have no confidence in the other side. And both would face significant harassment from their respective political right-wings. It would be politically safer for both Netanyahu and Abbas not to take even modest risks to move the process forward, especially when they don't believe the other side is sincere, and they're not yet convinced of American determination.

Second, it's going to be very difficult to get the sides to agree about what it is they are discussing. The two parties are so far apart that creating a framework for working negotiations seems ambitious.

Netanyahu is probably comfortable with any relatively unstructured negotiations, so long as they are all process and no substance. The status quo suits him well, and the difficulty will be creating a structure that incentivizes and/or coerces him to move forward, even slightly, in spite of the political risks.

Another problem Kerry faces is how to find a way to convince Abbas to reenter negotiations without the long-standing Palestinian demand—that was originally launched by the first-term Obama administration—of an Israeli settlement freeze. Feeling that it is not only a dead-end, but also believing they were burned by both sides on the issue during their first term, the new administration is unlikely to re-engage in any public discussion of a settlement freeze.

But several planned Israeli expansions, "E-1" and, even more ominously, "Giv’at HaMatos," if constructed would cut occupied East Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank. Other expansions threaten to pull Israeli settlements further and deeper across major arteries, especially Routes 60 and 443, making Palestinian contiguity in an independent state far more difficult.

Abbas has reportedly hinted he might be satisfied with a private understanding between the United States and Israel that settlement expansion would not include construction that changes the basic strategic equation and makes the border of a Palestinian state far more difficult to draw.

Yet a real inducement must still be found to give Abbas both genuine diplomatic reasons and political cover for the resumption of even indirect negotiations. One possibility is the prisoners' issue, which has become a major concern of the Palestinian public given several well-publicized hunger strikes, the controversial death of a Palestinian allegedly following torture in Israeli custody, and another following allegedly untreated cancer.

The issue strikes home very directly. Almost every Palestinian family has a close relative who either is now, or has been, in Israeli detention. Some prisoner release, or other agreement on prisoners, an issue now being strongly stressed by Abbas, could set the stage for talking more seriously about resuming negotiations.

Another interesting development that Kerry might be able to explore is the new Palestinian-Jordanian agreement that resurrects Jordan's role as "a custodian of the [Muslim and Christian] holy sites in Jerusalem." This idea dates back to the 1920s, and is also codified in the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. By formally reiterating Jordan's role in the all-important Muslim and Christian sacred sites in occupied East Jerusalem, the Palestinians may have strengthened the Arab (and American) hand in insisting that Israel must compromise on its untenable claims of eternal, undivided sovereignty over the entirety of Jerusalem, including the Muslim and Christian holy places.

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This move clearly reflects a growing Palestinian anxiety that, on their own, Jerusalem, and especially its holy sites, may be slipping away from their ability to successfully negotiate a compromise with Israel. And both the Palestinians and Jordanians are undoubtedly combining to counter to a recent call by Qatar to create $1 billion fund for Islamic sites in Jerusalem—money, and an imperative, which, if developed, would undoubtedly be delivered by Doha into the hands of Islamists.

This agreement could give Kerry another option to pursue as the regional dimension in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes increasingly indispensable.

But probably all that Kerry can do at the present time is discuss seriously with both parties what they need from the United States—and indirectly from each other—to to seriously considering resuming negotiations. This brings us back to the most shopworn cliché in the Middle East peace process bag: confidence-building measures.

Eyes will roll. Heads will shake. Arms will be flung up into the air in despair. But under the current circumstances—given the political pressure on both sets of leaders and the unprecedented distance between the parties on the final status issues, what would otherwise sound de minimis—talking about talks, and relatively modest unilateral or coordinated positive changes on the ground—are probably the most that Kerry has to work with for now.

And these consider that these very on-the-ground improvements, even if they do not yield immediate diplomatic results, can and should be seen as useful and beneficial measures for both parties in and of themselves. They need not only serve as the means to a border end. In the short run, many if not all of them can serve as ends in themselves, since they will all improve lived realities for both peoples.

Here's real the question: does anybody else have any better ideas? I thought not.