Well, that was quick. The “peace process” announcement by our secretary of state turns out to be less than meets the eye.
But even as he made his announcement after four days of shuttle — and helicopter — diplomacy here and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Kerry conceded that important details need to be worked out before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas actually sit down face to face.
We will see if they arrive at the bargaining table. If Palestinians do return to the peace talks it would, ironically, further damage Kerry’s predecessor’s reputation and suggest that the focus Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell placed on settlements was entirely misguided.
But let’s assume the talks about a basis for meeting for talks go well. What then? Any progress in the “peace process” is unlikely in light of some unpleasant realities.
Mahmoud Abbas is currently locked at the hip and struggling to form a “unity government” with Hamas, which does not recognize the Jewish state and will not give up terrorism.
Abbas showed no ability or will to move forward on a peace deal during George W. Bush’s administration or the first Obama term. Abbas at most can speak on behalf of the West Bank. But what “peace” is attainable so long as Hamas rules Gaza?
The ascendency of Iran and its Hezbollah allies naturally make the Israelis far more nervous about its long term security. With no sign the United State intends to challenge the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Russia alliance, the Israeli government has little motivation to take on additional security risks.
With Egypt convulsed and Jordan teetering under the weight of refugees, Israel’s more stable allies are not so stable. In particular without a fully functioning Egyptian government the potential for new security threats from Sinai are significant.
The danger in talks, of course, is that Palestinian expectations rise and then are dashed, leading to violence (we’ve seen this pattern before). A former U.S. official tells me: “The risk now is of a quick breakdown that could even lead to violence in the West Bank.” He concedes that preliminary talks about talks could drag on before they peter out. He nevertheless cautions that “many people fear that the breakdown will poison Israeli-Palestinian relations further, which will help no one. And they will further weaken the West Bank leadership . . . against Hamas, reminding the populace that these guys achieve nothing (and have their hands in the till).”
Moreover, this is a foolish misuse of American attention and stature, confirming both to our Sunni allies and the Iranian alliance that we are fundamentally unserious about the real threats to region.
If Kerry wanted to be productive he might work on pushing the Palestinians along the lines former Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad urged — improved security, civil institution building and economic security. The U.S. official observes, “The slow and steady work of building an economy and government institutions for the Palestinians is once again being pushed aside for the goal of a handshake on the White House lawn.”
In sum, Kerry’s efforts suggest the administration has learned nothing from its first term. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not, as Kerry insists, the center of the Middle East’s troubles. Pretending it is invites failure, American humiliation and aggression by the powers that should command our attention. In the meantime, the prospects for an improved life for the Palestinians and a less confrontational relationship with the Jewish state remain remote.