Kerry barking up the wrong tree

Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute has a thoughtful take on the administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His critique of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts is restrained, expressing in more academic terms the objections may Israel watchers have voiced to date. First, Kerry, like so many before him, is over-promising results and unnerving the Israelis:

FILE - In this Friday, June 28, 2013 file photo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry invites Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sit at a table with him as they meet for the second time on Kerry's fifth Mideast trip in Jerusalem. The contours of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are clear, we are told. If only the two sides would finally summon up the vision, the will and the courage, then the outcome is largely preordained, it is said: Two states roughly along the pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as a shared capital and some elegant solution for the Palestinian refugees. This attractive notion of an inevitable eventual result has been around for decades in the diplomatic community _ a deterministic hypothesis that has survived repeated failures by the sides to make the final leap. And the issue is relevant again, with Secretary of State John Kerry having coaxed Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the bargaining table anew, in talks set to begin in Washington this week. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool, File)
Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Kerry likes to entice Israelis with the idea that a deal with the Palestinians will trigger the Arab Peace Initiative’s promise of recognition from the wider Arab and Muslim worlds. In fact, a close reading of that initiative — first proposed by the Saudis in 2002 and since reaffirmed — shows that Israel has to make peace on both the Palestinian and Syrian fronts before any commitment to Arab and Muslim recognition applies. Obviously, the chances for a Golan deal with the current Syrian government or any conceivable successor are close to zero. Kerry could therefore secure a useful contribution to peacemaking by convincing the Arab League to amend the initiative, making its commitments contingent solely on an agreement with the Palestinians.

Regarding the costs of failure, Kerry needs to find a way to speak to Israelis without triggering their worst fears. When Israelis listen to U.S. officials talk about the specter of boycotts and political isolation, they hear it as a prescriptive warning, not an analytical assessment. And when Americans say that fateful decisions on peace must be made “now or never,” Israelis hear pressure, not inducement. It is far better for U.S. officials to let Israelis take the lead on this. . . .than to set themselves up as easy targets for politicians critical of any diplomacy.

The more serious problem is what is missing from the discussion. In Satloff’s telling, Kerry is focused on the wrong things. As such “current U.S. policy on the peace process is missing four critical items: (1) a rigorous effort to build a Palestinian constituency that will support tough decisions about peacemaking; (2) an appreciation of the opportunities that flow from Hamas’s current vulnerability; (3) high-level investment in bottom-up efforts to match the current top-down approach; and (4) public airing of costs to the Palestinians should their leaders reject the U.S. framework.” He infantilizes the Palestinians, absolving them of responsibility for their conduct on the ground and of the need to make realistic trade-offs in negotiations. Nos. 3 and 4, particularly, have been raised publicly for years now and indeed were errors in the Clinton administration that the Bush team tried to correct. But Kerry is convinced that the world is born anew with his tenure and that success is possible because no one has been as focused or dedicated as he. He must have forgotten that peace processors have been repeated this same line for decades.

Satloff suggests a controversial alternative: “Washington could begin to coordinate with Israel on the idea of unilateral withdrawal from a large part of the West Bank, an idea that is gaining ground as a ‘plan B’ among many segments of Israel’s security and political establishment. Injecting these ideas into the peace process ether would highlight the very real costs that Palestinians may incur if they reject legitimate steps forward.”In fact, a similar concept has been suggested by some Israelis and pro-Israeli voices when the Palestinian Authority originally went to the United Nations, and even earlier. In 2011 former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams wrote:

If Israelis are convinced they must separate from Palestinians, who should “govern themselves in their own state,” they should begin to change the pattern of their presence in the West Bank. There is a wide consensus in Israel that separation from the Palestinians is right, and safer, and in Israel’s long-run interest: Since the second intifada the dream of living together in peace has been dead, but the goal of living apart in peace is not. Yet current Israeli policy treats separation as a prize the Palestinians must win through concessions at the negotiating table, as if it were in the Palestinians’ interest but not Israel’s. That is a self-defeating stance, incurring growing penalties in international isolation and condemnation while moving Israel no closer to its desired goal. Israel should start to disentangle itself from governing the West Bank and the Arabs who live in it, and if this cannot be achieved through negotiations with the Palestinians it should be achieved through Israeli-designed unilateral steps that maximize Israeli security interests. One example: passage in the Knesset of a compensation law buying the home of any settler who wishes voluntarily to move back behind the security fence, whether to Green Line Israel or a major settlement. Another: turning additional areas within the West Bank over to the PA for normal daily governance.

The idea no doubt brings chills down the spines of some Israeli cabinet ministers, but also the PA, which has relied on refugee status (and the lucrative funds parceled out by international bodies), nursed hatreds and refused to fully develop economically and politically. This, in some sense, is the ultimate tough love.

The timing of this, of course, is an entirely different matter. With the Iran threat front and center, the region in turmoil and a hostile U.S. president in the Oval Office, Israel may simply choose to run out the clock on the Obama administration. In a Hillary Clinton or Scott Walker presidency, Israeli unilateralism may make much more sense.

Alternatively, and certainly in the short run, negotiating over more limited objectives and attempting to strengthen Palestinian civil institutions would be a much better use of the negotiators’ time. If the Arab Spring bedlam tells us anything, it is that developed habits of democracy, enhanced freedoms and a solid economic foundation should precede statehood; the alternative is a state of chaos.

At any rate, Satloff reminds us that Oslo is dead, the “peace process” is a farce and a different strategy with different objectives is required. Hard to argue with that.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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