In The New Republic, Ben Birmbaum and Amir Tibon have a 10,000-word history of Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian authority that’s been rocketing around Twitter for the past half-day. It’s the kind of long-form journalism that’s so chock-full of telling anecdotes and foreboding statements that I had to double-check to make sure Aaron Sorkin wasn’t one of the reporters.
I’m sure that by the time I’m finished writing this there will be at least three explainers on the story. So, rather than go that route, here are the five things I think I think after reading Birnbaum and Tibon’s story:
1) Always remember the sources. I’m a complete sucker for these “fly on the wall” stories — Bob Woodward is my John Grisham that way — but over the years one learns to develop antennae about just who in the story talked to the reporters and who didn’t. This matters because, shockingly, the sources tend to come out looking better than the non-sources in these kind of stories. There’s something of s selection effect at work here — sometimes the sources talk because they know they’ll look better — but it’s easy to forget this kind of distortion when one reads a seemingly omniscient account. So, when you read about a conversation when only two people are in the room, always ask yourself, “Which one told this to the reporter?”
Birnbaum and Tibon say that “this story is based on interviews with close to 100 Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and others who were involved in the talks or the surrounding political context. Every scene was provided or verified by someone who was in the room.” I don’t doubt the number of sources, but reading through it, I also don’t doubt that their primary sources were Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, with a healthy dollop of Martin Indyk thrown in. Not surprisingly, they come off as the most reasonable people in the room, with quotes like “I have no doubt that, if you put Tzipi and Saeb in a room alone, you will have a deal in two weeks.” I’ve met Livni and Erekat, and the portraits of both of them in TNR’s story ring true — but just bear in mind who the sources are when you read it, and how they might have shaped the story just a wee bit.
2) Maybe it’s a good thing Susan Rice isn’t the secretary of state. The national security adviser has only a cameo appearance in the story — but it’s one hell of a cameo:
After the meeting, the Palestinian negotiator [Erekat] saw Susan Rice — Abbas’s favorite member of the Obama administration — in the hall. “Susan,” he said, “I see we’ve yet to succeed in making it clear to you that we Palestinians aren’t stupid.” Rice couldn’t believe it. “You Palestinians,” she told him, “can never see the [expletive] big picture.”
I’m not gonna lie, there’s a better than 90 percent chance that in the same situation, I’d have thought the exact same thing as Rice. That’s different from actually saying it, however.
3) Benjamin Netanyahu is now a moderate in Israeli politics. What is striking in reading the middle portion of Birnbaum and Tibon’s account is that, compared to many in his ruling coalition, Bibi Netanyahu comes off as a moderate. At one point they write, “Tea Party types were continuing their slow-motion takeover of the Likud, weakening [Netanyahu's] position domestically.” The amount of massaging Netanyahu has to devote to placating the right wing of his cabinet is rather extraordinary. One wonders, briefly, whether Netanyahu is following Ariel Sharon’s trajectory, realizing the need for a peace deal just at the moment when he’s lost his political capacity to deliver one. And then one reads something like this and that wonder quickly fades.
4) Kerry knows Israel better than Netanyahu? The Susan Rice anecdote is pretty good; this exchange between Kerry and Netanyahu is more revealing:
The prime minister opened the meeting by playing Kerry a video on one of his favorite topics: Palestinian incitement. It showed Palestinian children in Gaza being taught to glorify martyrdom and seek Israel’s destruction. “This is the true obstacle to peace,” Netanyahu told Kerry.
“It’s a major issue,” Kerry replied. “And nothing justifies incitement. I hate it. I’ve read Abbas the riot act about it. You know I have. But it is worthwhile to try to understand what life looks like from the Palestinian point of view.”
“This has nothing to do with the occupation and the settlements,” Netanyahu said.
Kerry pressed on: “When I fought in Vietnam, I used to look at the faces of the local population and the looks they gave us. I’ll never forget it. It gave me clarity that we saw the situation in completely different ways.”
“This isn’t Vietnam!” Netanyahu shouted. “No one understands Israel but Israel.”
There are insufferable qualities about John Kerry, but in the end, as the story concludes, “Kerry’s warning about a third intifada has looked far more prescient.” It would be more accurate to say that no one understands the domestic politics of Israel proper than Netanyahu — but his understanding of the occupied territories is woefully inadequate.
5) Two-state solution, R.I.P. The most sobering statement of the entire story comes close to the beginning:
[I]n the weeks since assuming office, Kerry had become convinced that the parties didn’t have much longer to craft a two-state solution. As he would say at a House hearing the following month: “I think we have some period of time—in one to one-and-a-half to two years—or it’s over.”
Well, it’s over. What’s depressing about the story is how all of the two-state advocates are either getting old fast or politically marginalized. Netanyahu has now explicitly rejected the two-state solution, and the space for political debate in Israel and the occupied territories has shrunk/evaporated. The result is a stable equilibrium of perpetual violence in which the leaders of both sides politically profit from conflict. Reading the story, you can understand why Kerry thought what he thought about the window for the two-state solution.
For at least two decades, a key assumption to U.S. policy on this question is that the final outcome would be two states within the territory that Israel currently controls. That assumption will have to be revised — and US policy in the region will have to be revised along with it.