How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Having worked for half a dozen U.S. secretaries of state, I have never seen one as self-assured as John Kerry when it comes to pursuing the Middle East peace process. Forget envoys and experts: Kerry is committed to pursuing Lone Ranger diplomacy.
This week, the Lone Ranger is making his fifth official visit to the Middle East as U.S. secretary of state, with the stated goal of finding some way to resuscitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And, on those terms, there is a good chance that he will succeed. Diplomacy is a get-along business. Nobody wants to be blamed for the collapse of the Kerry effort or to say no to a likeable and persistent secretary of state.
But Kerry surely knows that getting Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table is only the first step. The real challenge will be to get them to stay there. And in that endeavor, good will and persistence will only get him so far. In fact, in restarting talks right now, Kerry may be risking sowing the seeds of his own failure. And that raises the question of why he is so adamant about pushing for a quick renewal of peace talks in the first place.
First, it is worth considering whether Kerry has an endgame in mind, particularly given the reality that a conflict-ending agreement on the core issues is almost certainly not possible now. It is likely that Kerry will try to focus negotiations in such a way as to give the two sides maximum cover, which means starting with territory and security, where the gaps are considerable but still narrower than they are on fraught issues like Jerusalem’s final status. Much of this conflict is about land, and if you could find a mutually agreeable border -- which would inevitably be based on the June 1967 lines, with adjustments and land swaps -- you might also be able to deal with other nagging questions.
But that strategy is not at all guaranteed to work. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will not accept Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ demands that Israel accept from the outset that any deal will be based on the June 1967 borders with only minor adjustments. Netanyahu’s coalition wouldn’t survive such a concession -- and the prime minister’s view on the amount of territory Israel must retain is more expansive, in any case. Moreover, Netanyahu will demand security arrangements, such as the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state and Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, that will likely not be compatible with any meaningful definition of Palestinian sovereignty; he is also sure to press Abbas to abandon the Palestinian refugees’ right of return and to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in exchange for any return to the 1967 lines. But having returned to the negotiating table without a freeze in Israeli settlement construction (Netanyahu has made clear that he won’t accept that as a precondition), Abbas will be under great pressure from his own public (and from Hamas) not to make additional concessions.
Kerry will try to buffer the discomfort on both sides with promises of economic aid for the Palestinians, the Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners, and security assurances for Israel. But this will not likely be enough. And no American guarantee can smooth over the bitter squabbles when it comes to the final status of Jerusalem.
Moreover, the regional environment has rarely been less conducive to peacemaking. Many commentators still reference the 2002 Arab League initiative that promised recognition of Israel in exchange for delivery on a two-state solution. But that plan was always long on symbolism and short on substance, and, given the current state of uncertainty in the Arab world, it’s no longer clear whether all the Arab states can deliver.
Hamas is ensconced in Gaza with a formidable stockpile of high trajectory weapons. The Egyptian-Israeli relationship is cold, and the Muslim Brotherhood–led government is unlikely to strongly support a two-state solution or Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem. Syria is imploding, drawing in Iran and Hezbollah ever closer to defend the Assad regime.
None of this augurs well for making big decisions, particularly for an Israeli prime minister deeply suspicious of the Arabs and focused much more on Iran and its nuclear program. To be sure, a breakthrough on the Palestinian issue would help isolate Iran. Still, it’s hard to see Netanyahu making big moves on the Palestinian issue until it’s much clearer where Iran stands on the nuclear issue following the recent presidential elections. This chicken-and-egg dynamic is likely to constrain what can be done on the peace process until the Iranian file becomes clearer.
Then there is the question of whether the Israelis and the Palestinians feel a real sense of urgency, which is the prerequisite to their taking the negotiations seriously. Right now, the answer is absolutely not. Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas is desperate enough yet; nor do they see sufficient incentives to justify the risk of changing the status quo. In short, neither Abbas nor Netanyahu is prepared to pay the price of what a conflict-ending accord would cost.
That also raises the question of the United States’ sense of urgency. We know that John Kerry is determined to get an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and to spend as much time and capital as it takes. The same cannot be said for President Barack Obama. As a second term president focused largely on a domestic agenda and keeping the economy afloat through the 2014 midterm elections, Obama prefers to avoid a messy peace process that could draw him into another fight with Netanyahu. The president didn’t reset his relations with Israel earlier this year only to have them come apart over an unproductive fight with Israel over a peace process that is likely to fail anyway.
And that’s the key point. Bill Clinton, the only second term president who pushed heavily for a peace deal, did not rush ahead because he didn’t have to worry about re-election. Clinton engaged because he thought there was a real chance to get an agreement. And so will Obama if there’s really an opportunity. But until then, the White House is unlikely to get involved.
Right now, Kerry may be on the verge of getting something he really wants: getting both sides back to the table. And he is sure to receive glowing press coverage if that comes to pass. But it may also represent the premature pinnacle of his Middle East diplomacy. Simply telling both sides that time is running out won’t have much effect. Nor will putting a plan on the table and saying “Take it or leave it.” The United States simply does not have the nerve or the muscle to force an agreement, and it couldn’t make one stick even if it were ready to try.
Kerry surely has advisers around him warning him about the long odds he is facing. So why is he ignoring them -- and voluntarily risking his prestige -- for the chance to get something done on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?
In part, the answer has to do with the fact that Kerry clearly believes that peace in the region is a paramount U.S. interest. But there is something else, too. Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose political career is ascending, Kerry’s time at the State Department likely represents the end of his political career. If Kerry wants entry to the Washington’s unofficial hall of fame, it will likely have to be as a diplomat, alongside Henry Kissinger and James Baker. And Kerry knows that diplomats earn reputations for greatness by tackling tough problems. So if President Obama lets him, Kerry will be more than willing to take risks.
And there are few riskier initiatives than this one. Nobody ever lost money betting against Arab-Israeli peace. But John Kerry has staked his personal credibility -- and America’s -- on the possibility that he can beat the odds. And if Netanyahu and Abbas are prepared to help him, he just might.