The end of Secretary of State John Kerry’s fifth Mideast peace mission, without securing an agreement from Israel and the Palestinians to resume negotiations, prompted a Hallelujah chorus of pessimism from “experts” and commentators who had predicted his failure and seemed anxious to see their predictions confirmed. They portrayed the Secretary as a kind of well-meaning but naïve Don Quixote flailing vainly against windmills.Take for example the way the Times of Israel, an ostensibly non-partisan Israeli news outlet, covered Kerry’s final public statement before leaving the country:
“I’m pleased to tell you that we have made real progress on this trip,” the indefatigable John Kerry told some highly dubious reporters on Sunday at a press conference before flying out of Ben Gurion Airport. “And I believe that with a little more work, the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach. We started out with very wide gaps, and we have narrowed those considerably.”
Times of Israel editor David Horovitz followed up with an analysis saying that Kerry’s persistence ran the risk of becoming “embarrassing and humiliating” for the United States. “Kerry is investing immense personal energy and time, and the United States’ diplomatic prestige, in desperately chivying Netanyahu and Abbas merely to the starting point of a path that has already been walked many times before…[and] leads only to a dead end,” Horovitz opined.
The New York Times also quoted Diana Buttu, an Arab-Israeli lawyer who said she was perplexed that Kerry sounded so upbeat. “We all know he won’t be able to bridge that gap very easily, and even if he does, he won’t be able to take it any further,” Buttu said.
Such comments prompted Israel’s top negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, to complain that she was "particularly angered by all the whining over the failure of the efforts." She noted that Kerry had left senior officials to continue the talks and promised to return to the region soon, hopefully to wrap up a deal.
It would be foolish to dismiss the immense difficulties that lie ahead—but it is equally irresponsible to condemn Kerry’s efforts to failure before we know the outcome.
The fact is, he has been delving deep into the core issues in his talks with the parties in an effort not only to iron out the conditions for a return to negotiations but also to set the parameters of the talks in a way that maximizes the chances of success.
The contacts so far, which amount to indirect negotiations mediated by the United States, seek to clarify the basic terms of the discussion around borders that will ensue if and when the official, formal negotiations resume. And setting the border is the crux of a deal, because it will determine which Israeli settlement blocs can be absorbed into Israel proper and which will need to be evacuated.
A report in the Washington Post that the United States was already in separate talks with Israel about how to guarantee its security after a withdrawal from the West Bank to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state provides more evidence of the seriousness of his approach.
The Post quoted an official as saying the aim of the talks was to “render certain Israeli security demands from the Palestinians moot and thus remove them from the negotiating table.”
Although the pessimists are all too ready with their lists of why Kerry will fail, there are some reasons for very cautious optimism.
For Israel, failure of the talks, as noted by Kerry himself and by Livni, will bring unprecedented diplomatic isolation. Former friends in Western Europe and beyond have grown intolerant of Israel’s settlement activity and run out of patience with an occupation that seems as if it will never end. Israel will be left with only one friend and ally in international organizations and institutions, namely the United States.
For the Palestinians, failure of the talks will leave the government of President Mahmoud Abbas facing diminishing foreign aid while the West Bank economy slips deeper into recession.
Kerry may be an optimist but he’s not a fool. He may be betting that once the parties return to the table, a momentum will start to build around the talks that will make it difficult for either party to disengage.
The Secretary is also motivated by the knowledge that failure now may condemn Israelis and Palestinians to a future of endless conflict with no solution in sight.
The pessimistic chorus may be ready to accept that, but Kerry—to his immense credit—is not.