I was in a television studio this morning, where I was required to explain why John Kerry's efforts at getting to a cease fire aren't fruitful at this time. My answer may sound familiar to the readers of my articles. That’s because Kerry's problem with the cease-fire isn't much different from the one he had with moving forward a peace process. He is an active Secretary of State who has the fire in his belly. As was demonstrated by the "hot mic" incident a few days ago, "sitting around" while Gaza is burning runs against every instinct he has.
So Kerry is here, but he wasn't exactly invited. He is not here because the sides want him here (or because the other mediators do, for that matter). He is here because he is trying to move forward something that – again – the sides do not really want. Yes, Israel wants a cease-fire. Yes, Hamas wants a cease-fire. But only if the terms are compatible with their respective demands. Israel would agree to a cease-fire that clearly puts Hamas on the losing side of this conflict. Hamas would agree to a cease-fire that clearly puts it in a victorious position at the end of this conflict. Neither side wants to compromise. Not yet.
Again: it is a pattern for Kerry to want things for the sides that they themselves do not want. Take a look at an article I wrote for the New York Times a couple of months ago about the failure of the recent round of peace processing:
Failure is in the eye of the beholder. And in this case only those who expected a deal — the Americans — failed. They failed to reach their goal, and failed to understand that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have other goals in mind (or, more likely, they understood yet failed to draw the proper conclusions). But for the two parties with real interests at stake, the talks were a success. They succeeded in proving, once again, that there are things more important for them than peace and calm — things like national pride, sacred traditions, symbols and land.
Rewriting this paragraph in the context of negotiations for a cease-fire, I'd say this: Failure to get to a cease fire at this point is also in the eye of the beholder. And in this case only those who expected a quick fix - the Americans – have failed. They failed to reach their goal, and failed to understand that Israel and Hamas have other goals in mind (or, more likely, they understood this yet failed to draw the proper conclusions). But for the two parties with real interests at stake, the continued battle is not a failure. The parties have proved, once again, that there are things more important for them than stopping the current violence - things like long-term strategic goals and deterrence policy.
As I explained in recent days, again and again, Israel is adamant not to go back to a status quo that keeps Hamas' ability to build its military capabilities intact. If Kerry can bring about that kind of cease-fire, then his involvement will be highly valued. On the other hand, if all Kerry is going to do is to pressure Israel to accept a cease-fire that makes the achievements of the operation obsolete, then his involvement will be considered disruptive. Talking to Israeli officials these days one gets the impression that they don't really trust him to make the right call – and that they have more faith in the Egyptians.
Everyone who understands Israel knows that the near shutdown of Ben Gurion airport is a serious blow to Israelis. They love to travel, and live in a country from which flights is the only way out. This is not an actual island, but an isolated state in a fairly hostile neighborhood. So the decision by airlines to halt their flights to Tel Aviv is troubling to Israelis. It will increase their sense of isolation in their fight against terrorism. And of course, this doesn't mean that they want the government to ease its terms for a cease-fire. In fact, it is likely to harden their position.
Hopefully, the decision will be promptly reversed (some airlines are already reconsidering). But it has possible long term consequence: This decision will dramatically reduce the ability of anyone to make the case for any withdrawal of military forces from the West Bank (the settlements is another matter). Opponents of West Bank concessions and evacuations keep threatening Israelis that Palestinian control over the area will mean in practice Palestinian control over Israel's ability to operate its airport. Now they have proof. One rocket not far from the airport, and Israelis already have to scramble to find alternative flights with Israeli airlines, the only ones that keep flying, except for the Brits (God Save the brave subjects of the Queen).