from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Is the White House Pulling the Plug on Kerry’s Peace Mission?

April 02, 2014

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Secretary of State John Kerry abruptly cancelled his Middle East shuttle diplomacy yesterday less than a month before his self-imposed deadline for concluding an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. The New York Times leads today with a quote from a senior Obama administration official saying, “Mr. Kerry’s decision not to return to the region immediately reflected a growing impatience in the White House, which believes that his mediating efforts have reached their limit and that the two sides need to work their way out of the current impasse.”

If true, it would mean that the White House had cut the legs out from its lead diplomat just as he was trying to avert a complete meltdown of the U.S.-initiated high-stakes diplomatic process. It followed a dramatic day in which Kerry had thrown a diplomatic ‘Hail Mary’ designed to keep the fledgling negotiations from collapsing entirely.

While the details of Kerry’s most recent proposal remain sketchy, it seems to entail a package of measures that would include an agreement by both parties to remain in negotiations, Israel to proceed with its overdue release of a batch of Palestinian prisoners promised at the onset of this recent Kerry diplomatic chapter, an additional Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners, some limit to settlement activity, a Palestinian suspension of their threat to activate their membership in the United Nations, and as the news-grabbing sweetener, the U.S. release of Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned for spying on the United States for Israel. The situation became even more complicated when Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas last night announced he was taking concrete steps to join fifteen international agencies, though U.S. officials suggested that this move was a negotiating ploy and not an effort to undermine the secretary of state’s efforts.

As Kerry worked feverishly to salvage the process he initiated last summer, why would the White House turn it off lest it end in a blaze of recriminations, an absence of a back-up plan, and a distinctly possible resort to violence on the ground? One reason may be that as the day progressed, and the voices opposed to the Pollard-for-more-peace-process grew louder (both the Republican and Democratic heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee came out against it), the White House decided that the Kerry proposal was too costly to support. Had Kerry not coordinated his ideas with the White House before floating them with the parties?

The White House suspension of Kerry’s efforts may simply be a tactical move designed to force Israelis and Palestinians to stew a bit and ponder the cost of a failed peace process. Such a calculation, that the two sides need to work their way out of the current impasse, is conceptually flawed. Israelis and Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot find a way to “work their way out” by themselves. Indeed, the whole logic of Kerry’s involvement was based on this assessment and of the need for a third-party facilitator.

However justified the criticisms of Secretary of State Kerry’s approach, the Obama administration, having launched this high profile effort at comprehensive peace, cannot simply disown its own initiative just as it appears to be on the verge of collapse. In the past month, the president himself hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, and other Middle East officials at the White House, signaling that this peace effort was the administration’s and not simply John Kerry’s. As its patron, the United States has a responsibility, at a minimum, to find a soft landing for its fledgling effort.

A free fall now would be self-imposed, and would jeopardize the serious and constructive Israeli-Palestinian economic and security cooperative efforts underway on the ground. It could rapidly lead to major diplomatic fighting in international bodies, such as the United Nations and at the International Criminal Court. The center of gravity within Palestinian circles could quickly shift towards radicals and renewed violent efforts at “resistance.” Israel would surely take punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority, withholding tax revenues that help pay salaries, limiting access and movement of Palestinians, and stepping up its military footprint in the West Bank.

Having repeatedly made the argument since last summer that such moves would be catastrophic, the United States owes it to the people of the Middle East not to be the party that helps bring about this disastrous outcome.

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