Monday, March 25, 2013

Obama Will Need to Curb Kerry’s Folly

by Jonathan S. Tobin

President Obama is being praised for his peace advocacy during his visit to Israel this week. But it hasn’t escaped the notice of savvy observers that for all of his eloquent appeals for coexistence, he did not commit himself to any specific peace plan. In fact, he actually endorsed Israel’s call for negotiations without preconditions, a clear change from previous U.S. demands for a settlement freeze and other concessions. Even more to the point, since Palestinian attitudes toward Obama’s visit ranged from indifference to outright hostility, it’s hard to see how the president’s attempt to urge young Israelis to work for peace will change a thing.

The president was wise to avoid specifics since the prospects for progress in negotiations, or even holding talks, are bleak. But it appears that new Secretary of State John Kerry has no such inhibitions. According to an article in Politico today, Kerry is straining at the leash this week as he prepares to dive headfirst into an all-out effort to restart the peace process. Kerry is undaunted by the unbroken record of failure on the part of a long list of his predecessors, and seems blithely indifferent to the current situation in which the Palestinians remain divided and unable to move toward peace. The president appears willing to let Kerry waste his time on another go at mediation, so long as, Politico notes, “he keeps a low profile and doesn’t generate a political backlash.” But Kerry’s open desire to use his new position to make a place for himself in the history books seems to be setting up the president for exactly what he seems to want to avoid: an embarrassing fiasco that could distract both the Europeans and Israelis from the main security threat to the region coming from Iran and set the stage for more Palestinian violence.

That Kerry would embark on such a quest at a moment when success seems impossible speaks volumes not only about his ego but his inability to grasp the realities of the region.

Though the president addressed his pleas for peace to Israelis, given the fact that, as the president acknowledged in his Jerusalem speech, they have already taken risks for peace, the ball is clearly in the Palestinians’ court. But with Hamas in control of Gaza, the Palestinians are not merely divided; Abbas and the PA understand that any move toward recognition of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn, would bolster the Islamist terror group’s ambition in its rivalry with Fatah.

The New York Times helped prop up the idea that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is eager to resume negotiations by publishing a piece claiming internal PA memos testify to his willingness to talk. But since this is the same man who has been studiously avoiding returning to the table for more than four years after he fled from an Israeli offer of statehood, it’s difficult to take such stories seriously.

Kerry’s fatal flaw appears to be, as Politico puts it, that he is “in lockstep with European leaders, who view the Israeli-Palestinian issue with great urgency.” He also stands “a bit closer to the Palestinians than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and less likely to reflexively embrace the Israeli position.” But one must ask why Kerry thinks Hamas or a fearful Abbas will respond to his charms when years of President Obama attempting to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction yielded only disdain?

As the Arab Spring and the Iranian threat have proved, the notion that bringing Israel to heel can solve all the region’s problems is absurd. Indeed, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt has strengthened Hamas and weakened Fatah and made any movement even more unlikely.
More to the point, as Seth wrote earlier, Palestinians seem mired more than ever in a culture of hatred toward Israel and Jews that renders them indifferent to the president’s peace advocacy since it came within the context of speeches that embraced the Zionist narrative about Israel’s creation.

Though Obama may hope Kerry’s activities will keep hopes for peace alive without compromising U.S. policy on more urgent issues, that may be a snare that will undermine any efforts to focus the Europeans on the Iranian threat. Even worse, like other American peace processors, Kerry’s gambit could serve to raise hopes whose disappointment will be used as justification for a new round of violence that many Palestinians are already openly planning for.

This means the president needs to keep close curbs on his new secretary. Unless he wishes his second term to be embroiled in a failure that will limit his ability to deal effectively with Iran as well as distract him from the need to address vital domestic issues, he’s going to need to stop Kerry’s vain and foolish pursuit of diplomatic glory.


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