from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Obsessive Are the Peacemakers

February 11, 2013

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Lost in all the reporting and blogging about President Obama’s planned March visit to Israel were the first phone calls his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, made even before entering office.  Even before figuring out how to use his new email, learning the way to the cafeteria, and filling out “Emergency Contact” forms, Secretary Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.  Perhaps America’s new chief diplomat was merely extending a courtesy to important Middle East allies or maybe he was giving them a heads-up that the White House was going to announce the president’s visit to Israel and the West Bank or perchance Secretary Kerry wants to have a go at making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Of these three possibilities, the second seems most likely, but word on the street is that the United States or at least the State Department is about to get back into the peace process game.  As one diplomat related, “Well, it is better than doing nothing.  Maybe Kerry will get lucky. You never know.”  Yes, indeed, you never know, but there are a few things the secretary of state should keep in mind as he declares that peace is possible within two years, begins his shuttle diplomacy, offers bridging proposals, admonishes the parties against unilateral actions, calls for a summit, builds confidence, secludes himself and negotiators at Wye River/Shepherdstown/Camp David, writes a road map, and declares his optimism that the parties are ready for a breakthrough:

1.     The Palestinians’ minimal requirements for peace—half of Jerusalem, return of Palestinian refugees, and a territorially contiguous state with all the attributes of sovereignty, the Israelis cannot deliver.  Even if some Israeli doves think dividing Jerusalem is a good idea, it is practically impossible given all the resources the Israelis have poured into absorbing the eastern part of the city into a greater municipality under exclusive Israeli control.  There could be allowances for some refugees to return to what is now Israel in a hypothetical peace agreement, but not in the large numbers the Palestinians demand.  And given their experience since the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which did not provide Israelis with any greater security (even as they continued to control Gaza), giving up West Bank territory to a weak Palestinian leadership seems like a strategic blunder.

2.     Israel’s minimal requirements for peace—retaining the strategic ridgeline of the Judean and Samarian hills, a presence in the Jordan Valley, and the demilitarization of the state of Palestine are non-starters for the Palestinians.  If the Palestinians were to agree to Israel’s minimal requirements they might as well agree to nothing at all.  The best they would get is a seat at the UN, which they practically have, and the short-terms hosannas of a cynical international community.  At worst, it would bring about a round of intra-Palestinian bloodletting as no doubt Hamas and other hardliners would work overtime to kill an agreement that did not hand the whole of historic Palestine over to the Palestinians.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not ripe for resolution, as they say. There are, of course, policies that the United States can undertake to create an environment more conducive to serious negotiation, but Washington has neither the political will nor the leverage with either party to make that happen.  One would think that the demographic realities would move the Israelis, but the fact that there will be more Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in the coming decades has not moved Israelis in large numbers to demand fundamental change in the status quo.  This has much to do with the fact that they cannot be assured of security if they withdraw, thereby making way for a Palestinian state.  The immediate result is deadlock, which it is not earth shattering to suggest makes it difficult to find an equitable solution to the conflict overtime.

It is not clear why the new Secretary of State wants to wade into this morass of bleakness and frustration.  There has got be a better reason than “someone’s got to do it.”  I, for one, believe the secretary’s time is better spent de-escalating tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea or attending to global climate change or working to prevent Egypt from melting down—important issues to which one can at least imagine a resolution.