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Five Comments on John Kerry’s Zillionth Visit to Israel

by Shmuel Rosner

January 1, 2014 | 8:03 am

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a
joint news conference with Philippines' Foreign Secretary
Albert del Rosario at the Department of Foreign Affairs
in Manila December 17, 2013. Photo:Reuters/Brian Snyder

1.

John Kerry – and I've said this many times – should be commended for being so determined in his attempts to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. He should also be teased for picking the wrong time and the wrong issue to focus his energy on. His current visit to the region - in which he will be "pushing for the sides to agree on a framework of core principles, such as security, the future of Jerusalem and fate of refugees, as soon as possible" – marks an intensification of his quest to get something out of all these discussions. A paper, a "framework", a tangible document to justify the effort. But as Aaron David Miller commented in his latest article: "even if he did manage to reach a Framework Agreement on Permanent Status… that doesn't mean the piece of paper can be implemented". Yesterday, my friend Peter Berkowitz counted "10 roadblocks to Mideast peace". That's quite considerate of him, as I can probably name another twenty without much effort (Peter doesn't even mention Jerusalem), the last of which is the fact that the peace process focuses too much on providing new papers and too little on creating new realities.

2.

A typical characteristic of writing about the peace process is the need columnists have to constantly provide their readers with enlightening new insights to match new developments – even when the reality barely changes in such a way that justifies a change in the analysis. So Miller, a skeptic, is now "more encouraged about Kerry's prospects". As usual, he is very good at explaining his sudden change of heart. Yet as one reads the analysis, and the many reservations that weaken and put in perspective the encouraging outlook, one gets the impression that maybe Miller just got bored of writing that Kerry's prospects are not very good.

3.

The process is filled with irrelevant symbolic acts. Don't waste too much time thinking about them- they are a distraction and they contribute little to our understanding of the true problems.

Two notable examples:

The release of prisoners – let's use the proper term: murderers – by Israel did very little to "advance" the peace talks. It was a one day event, with no positive result to be talked about. The demand for such a release was immoral and dumb. Israelis rightly view the demand and the celebration of the release of people who butchered women, children, and innocents with disgust. It makes them less likely to want to have an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians pocketed the so-called achievement and moved on – it doesn't make them more receptive to compromise on core issues. In other words: the only purpose of the release is to make the Americans happy by having something "going on".

The renewed campaign to release Jonathan Pollard has nothing to do with the peace process. I'm all for his release – because his prolonged imprisonment smacks of, well, bias and vindictiveness. Still, expecting Israel to exchange Pollard for its core interests in regards to the peace process would be naïve. If Pollard is released, Israelis would be happy and grateful, and then they would keep making the same demands in negotiations.

4.

Take a look at the latest Truman Research Institute survey of Israelis and Palestinians. As we've shown in the past, Israelis don't really trust the Obama administration. As you can see in our Israeli Opinion on Obama tracker, the numbers of the new poll are pretty similar to many polls from the past. "23% of Israelis believe the Obama administration’s policy is more supportive of Israel, 28% believe it is more supportive of the Palestinians, and 40% believe it is equally supportive of both sides". 23% for "pro Israel" doesn't represent much change in Israelis' outlook. 40% for "equally supportive" – or, in other polls, "neutral" – is almost equally bad, as Israelis (rightly or wrongly, that's for you to decide) expect support from the US, and not neutrality. If they sense neutrality, they resent it. 

5.

Still, Kerry's proposed deal, attuned to Israeli concerns, is the carrot. The Obama administration's support, mistrust aside, is the carrot. The coming visit to Israel by two European leaders – Germany's Merkel and Britain's Cameron – represents the stick. Israel, no matter what Defense Minister Yaalon says, is worried about the possibility of Europe gradually moving toward accepting a partial boycotting of Israel.

Does Israel really prefer a European boycott over "rockets from Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin onto Ben-Gurion Airport"? I'd say the answer depends on the severity of the boycott and the frequency and accuracy of the rockets. Obviously, Israel is cautious in responding to rocket attacks from Gaza, as it doesn't want to prompt escalation and also doesn’t want to invite foreign condemnation. So you can say that some rocket attacks are better than boycott (on the other hand, Yaalon is right in saying that people should not get the wrong impression: Israelis, pushed to a corner, might be more stiff-necked in rejecting foreign intervention and more willing to pay a price for keeping their independence than some might assume).

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