Grasping the Nettle

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Queen Alia International Airport on January 5, 2014 in the Jordanian capital, Amman. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images) US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Queen Alia International Airport on January 5, 2014 in the Jordanian capital, Amman. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Queen Alia International Airport on January 5, 2014 in the Jordanian capital, Amman. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State John Kerry has devoted more time and effort to trying to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority than to any other foreign policy problem. That may seem a strange ordering of priorities, given all else that challenges the United States, as well as its allies and partners, in the Greater Middle East.

US forces have withdrawn from Iraq, but the country is far from stable. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is slated to turn over most security duties to local forces by the year’s end, but the US and Afghanistan have not even been able to agree a security deal to permit some US forces to stay. Thus there may be a complete withdrawal, as US President Barack Obama warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week. Meanwhile, talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are supposed to conclude a deal regarding Tehran’s nuclear program by July 20, but there is a long way between here and there, with 35 years’ worth of mutual mistrust to overcome and skepticism in Israel and among the Gulf Arabs that a viable deal can or even should be reached.

The crisis in Syria is escalating and diplomacy has for now reached a dead end. Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain are still reeling from various post-Arab Spring traumas. Therefore, it follows that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should be bottom of the heap. Yet Kerry is being more persistent than any US leader since former President Jimmy Carter brokered the 1979 Israeli–Egyptian Peace Treaty.

Last year, Kerry set April 29, 2014, as the deadline for a final Israeli–Palestinian agreement, but that has already been scaled down to be only a “framework for negotiating.” Even that deadline is unlikely to be kept. Israel is unnerved by events in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Hamas). The Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, sees Israel continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, but he cannot speak for Hamas, and therefore Gaza, without which no final agreement with Israel is possible.

One theory for the reasons behind Kerry’s relentless engagement is that Israeli–Palestinian peace would be a major key to resolving other regional problems. A peace agreement, the reasoning goes, would reduce—though probably not end—the justification of the “Palestinian problem” as a lightning rod for Islamist fundamentalists elsewhere in the region. They would still fuss and fume, but could no longer point to the objective reality of Israeli “occupation of Arab lands.” Iranian hardliners would find that championing the Palestinian cause would no longer pay political dividends. And if Jerusalem became capital of a sovereign Palestinian state (while also being capital of Israel)—assuming the Haram Al-Sharif (Dome of the Rock) were under some mutually acceptable form of Palestinian authority—then the Muslim world would have less to legitimately complain about. In addition, Hezbollah could no longer identify itself with the Palestinian cause and Hamas would have less to talk about in trying to rally support in Gaza. Both Egypt and Jordan would be less vulnerable to criticism from other Arab states for their treaties with Israel.

This is quite a list of positive achievements. But are they realistic? Is the theory sound? Even if the answer to both questions is “yes,” getting from here to there in Israeli–Palestinian negotiations is no walk in the park, and there are potential spoilers on all sides. The one clear advantage is that the outlines of a final settlement have been obvious since December 2000, when former US President Bill Clinton laid out his so-called “Clinton Parameters.” In brief, the state of belligerency would end, Palestine would become an independent state (but would be essentially demilitarized, perhaps with NATO troops stationed in it), Jerusalem would be capital of both states, there would be land swaps to incorporate many West Bank Jewish settlements into Israel and some compensation would be paid to the 1948 Palestinian refugees.

The only thing lacking is political will on the part of Israelis and Arabs, but it is in very short supply.

The US is also motivated by criticisms that its regional leadership is weak and that it has not sufficiently met its responsibilities in brokering an Israeli–Palestinian settlement. That argument may not hold water, but many governments and people believe it. By his peacemaking efforts, therefore, Kerry is seeking to give the lie to this view, and in the process buttress US standing and demand that other countries also play their parts in fostering regional peace and stability.

This message needs to be taken to heart by all of friends of the US and its and partners: if it is to carry most of the security and peacemaking burden it must have help, otherwise the US government and the American people may begin to reevaluate how much “blood and treasure” they are willing to continue risking in the Middle East.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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