Let me begin this post by confessing that I know something but hardly enough on the true state of John Kerry’s attempt at bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Kerry – as David Ignatius wrote yesterday – does deserve credit for conducting a round of US diplomacy with little fanfare and a real effort at being discreet. Being discreet, though, is a means to an end. It can serve the goal of getting the sides closer together until the time is ripe for going public and declaring success (or partial success). That being said, it can also serve the goal of keeping an apparent failure under a cloud of doubt until the time is ripe to pull out while the press and the public are busy worrying about something else. Which is it then? “He has divulged few details, and his overall strategy is unclear”, the New York Times explained today. So I’m not the only one willing to admit some measure of ignorance.
'Is Kerry making progress?' is the wrong question. Progress is merely inching forward, and Kerry needs more than that: he needs to progress enough for him – and for Israel and Palestine – to get to a point from which more progress would be the natural way forward. I do know from many indications that some progress was made, but I am still reluctant to say that this progress is close to being enough. “Along with Mr. Netanyahu, the biggest drag on serious progress seems to be the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has shown no sign of dropping his demand that Israel halt settlements before negotiations resume” the NYT editorialized. It is nice of the paper to notice that Netanyahu isn’t the only leader worthy of blame (reading it in recent months one could get the impression that he is). And they too seem to think that progress isn’t yet “serious” – namely, that Kerry has yet to reach a point that justifies his effort.
So what were Kerry’s achievements and setbacks thus far?
Atmosphere: while still grim, the atmosphere is not as inflammatory as it was a couple of months ago. “Rather than waste time haggling over a formal settlement freeze or other confidence-building measures, he got both sides to make unannounced concessions”, wrote Ignatius. That’s already much better than the policy pursued by the Obama administration four years ago.
Economy: Kerry is focusing on the Palestinian economy. That is good – everyone wants a strong Palestinian economy and a better life Palestinians. The problem with such focus, as TOI's David Horovitz remarked, is that “the Palestinians want their own country. They want independence. A booming economy, working well with the Israelis next door, would be great too. But it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the sovereignty”.
Political progress: Kerry – as I wrote in early April – “replaced the contentious issue of settlements with an even more contentious matter: boundaries. As Obama explained in both Ramallah and Jerusalem, drawing the future border of a Palestinian state — ‘real borders that have to be drawn — is the crux of the matter”. He still has two problems with this strategy: the Israelis don’t want it – because they won't commit to borders in such an early stage; and the Palestinians also don’t seem to want to drop settlements as their main target (hence: Abbas “has shown no sign of dropping his demand that Israel halt settlements before negotiations resume”).
Does Kerry deserve praise for sticking his neck out to try and solve the unsolvable? I assume that the answer to this question – like many answers to many such questions – will be the classic Monday morning quarterback answer. If Kerry succeeds we’ll say it was worth it, if he fails we’ll admonish him for wasting precious time.
But it could also be argued that whatever happens, the effort was worth it – that is, if you believe that American demonstration of seriousness on this issue is an essential ingredient of an overall successful American foreign policy. Or it could be argued that Kerry deserves criticism even if he succeeds in bringing the sides closer together, criticism for making the Israeli-Palestinian issue the top priority when other issues are much more urgent, have more important implications, and could serve him better even if solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is his ultimate goal.
If you buy this line of argument, a Kerry success can’t be judged as a stand-alone effort, but rather has to be weighed against the other issues that Kerry is neglecting by focusing on the secondary Israeli-Palestinian peace process.