Sunday, March 16, 2014

Kerry’s Unprepared for the Palestinian “No”

by Jonathan S. Tobin

Secretary of State John Kerry knows that time is fast running out to get the Palestinians to agree to keep talking with Israel. In April the nine-month negotiating period that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas gave Kerry to pursue a deal will expire. He has sought to extend it by getting both sides to agree to a framework for more discussions. While the Israelis have, despite misgivings, indicated that they will sign on to the framework, the Palestinians are balking. The administration’s response to this has been to start peeling away elements of the framework that gave the Israelis some sense that they were not being railroaded. The first to go was, as Tom Wilson noted, the insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which Kerry discarded yesterday in congressional testimony. But if Kerry thinks not forcing Abbas to say the two little words that will signify that the conflict is over will get him to agree to the framework, he’s dreaming.

As I wrote yesterday, the Palestinians and their apologists like Peter Beinart think Kerry has been too kind to the Israelis since he has incorporated some of their demands about security into the framework as well as leaving the parties room to negotiate about borders, settlements, and Jerusalem. And he has also, at least to date, refused to budge on the question of the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. In his Pressure Points blog, Elliott Abrams rightly points out that this is the sticking point that no amount of American diplomacy or pressure on Israel will solve. Abbas can’t give in on refugees and that makes, as Abrams says, “a genuine peace agreement unrealistic and in fact impossible.” After all the months of negotiating and the various statements from Kerry and President Obama hammering Israel, the U.S. is in exactly the same position it was in last summer when Kerry embarked on his Middle East mission: the same reasons that prevented the Palestinians from saying yes to offers of statehood and peace in 2000, 2001, and 2008 still apply: they are never going to agree to anything that ends the conflict.

Though I took issue with Beinart’s silly effort to blame Kerry for being too pro-Israel, he was right about one thing. The messy aftermath of the collapse of diplomacy and the likelihood that the secretary has no clue about how to deal with the possibility of a revival of violence and increased diplomatic attacks on Israel mean that what will follow is very much Kerry’s fault.

When Kerry began his effort to revive negotiations his chances seemed slim, but he was determined nevertheless to solve a problem that had defeated all those who had gone before him. But what is now becoming clear is that Kerry never had a plan other than a belief that his diplomatic skills were equal to any test. Over the last eight months both Kerry and President Obama have chimed in to keep the heat on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu while continually praising Abbas for his commitment to peace. But if, even after all this and Kerry’s ditching of the Jewish state demand, Abbas still says no, the consequences will be more serious than just another proof of Kerry’s diplomatic incompetence.

Up until now Kerry’s effort has been portrayed as a noble endeavor made all the more heroic by the long odds that were stacked against it from the start. But if, as Kerry himself noted yesterday, distrust between the parties is greater than ever, it’s fair to ask how much of this is his fault. Though the framework he tried to craft was flawed, it was based on the notion that if there was to be an agreement it had to be one that would bring real peace. Yet what we are learning as the process unravels is that by focusing all the pressure on Israel the secretary has done nothing to bring the Palestinians closer to understanding that they must end the conflict. By speaking of violence and boycotts aimed at Israel after he fails, Kerry has made it certain that such things will happen but done nothing to avoid that outcome.

As the moment of truth looms closer on Kerry’s effort, it is time for him to stop badgering the Israelis and to begin to come to grips with Palestinian rejectionism. Abbas has come to rely on the animus of the Obama administration for Netanyahu, but he must be informed that a fourth “no” will have consequences. If not, then Obama and Kerry will truly be complicit in the mayhem that will follow. 

Jonathan S. Tobin


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